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Blinker, death and redemption

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The tragic looms before us as an event that shows the terrifying aspects of existence, but an existence that is still human. It reveals its entanglement with the uncharted background of man's humanity. Paradoxically, however, when man faces the tragic, he liberates himself from it. This is one way of obtaining purification and redemption. Breakdown and failure reveal the true nature of things. In failure, life's reality is not lost; on the contrary, here it makes itself wholly and decisively felt. There is no tragedy without transcendence. Even defiance unto death in a hopeless battle against the gods and fate is an act of transcending: it is a movement toward man's proper essence, which he comes to know as his own in the presence of his doom.
--Karl Jaspers

I sat on a barstool and Channel Five cut to the mug shot. Freaky. Looks just like Blinker. Poor sap. "What's Blinker going to do? asked the voice behind me. Blinker. Do? I whirled around. "Blinker?" It didn't make sense. I knew what I had heard and instantly understood. And one thoroughly ballasted part of my head hung to its little world while another went zooming off, tethered only by a cartoon rubber band. Then it snapped. I woke up that brisk, sunny November morning at a friend's house. I had gone through a quiet Sunday and read The N&O story describing hell the night before--humans flying through the air like bloody rags, a bicycle parked by the road, the owner's shoe upright in the road. A story mundane in its bloody, depressing familiarity, with the bleary face of a man who had just met six people at an intersection I know well. Heading east, just after a low hill at State Surplus, N.C. 54 intersects Nowell Road, a generally, gentle uphill run that rises out of the sports/RBC complex, then goes into a tight right-hand sweeper--and out pops a stop sign into your right field of vision. And if you're not paying attention and it ain't your night--the classic T-bone.

This drunken fool had run into a worst-case scenario, an earlier accident at the dimly lit, un-signaled intersection famous for wrecks. Could have been anyone--me in the old days, before I gave up driving.

Just another news story, this one compounded by the magnitude of the catastrophe. Six people. I just couldn't imagine. The dead. The witnesses. The survivors. The poor cops who maybe thought they'd seen it all.

The man who had done it. I couldn't stop thinking about him, maybe a monster like Timothy Blackwell, probably not. But either way fucked forever by the law or his own head.

"That was Blinker?" I moaned, not a question, a statement; a lament. Some things just don't make sense. Never will. There was nothing to do but to allow the shock to set in and cry for the families of the dead, for the survivors, for Blinker's friends. For Blinker. For me. The dead? Their problems were over.

That was how it started, a strange and sad voyage that is over now, but in one sense has just begun.

There's this little sandwich shop I stop by. Sadlack's stocks Guinness and it is cold. Everyone who drinks has to be somewhere and this is the corner I staked out years ago--proximity, price, but mostly because of its society. It was how things could be, gleefully messed up but generous, tolerant and occasionally hilarious--laborers, disaffected academics, loafers, fashionistas (when the weather's nice) and the medicated. They come on foot, on bicycles and in cars. The island of misfit toys.

When it's good, there is nothing like it: bright sunshine on the deck, a kooky theater-with-plot-lines courtesy of the actors. Guitars, dogs and children chattering. A fine perch, lots to look at, fire trucks howling past the pretty young State kids. Some dude working on playing Jimi Hendrix on a ukulele while riding a bicycle backwards.

When it is not so good, the early dark of a soggy, cold night in late November, the metal walls press in like the hull of a sinking submarine. The drinking is conducted with grim dedication while the greasy rain rattles on the roof. Same folks with the same problems--anesthetizing themselves with whatever it takes to hang on. Everyplace it's the same story. Beer, Jesus, I don't see the difference. Oh, I know.

So here's this Blinker who'd been around and I'd gotten to know. Nice kid--a dear, talented man with this tinge of sorrow I could never quite get to. Didn't want to. Blinker the clown, the chimney sweep, the savior of injured birds, abandoned dogs, the homeless. He would take them all in at his expense. Sometimes stuff got gone--money, possessions. "They needed it more than I did," he'd say, and never call the cops.

"Tragedy" is sprinkled on the television news like salt at a diner--the blow-dried messenger brightening as they cut to a dog wash. Meaningless. Here's some straight from the jar: A man who feels compelled to give succor to the helpless and the injured accidentally kills those helping the injured. Tragedy is the possibility that a person better than most people, but not perfect, might be destroyed for attempting to be good. Sophocles would have recognized this one.

I walked into the first floor lobby of the John Baker Law Enforcement center for Larry Robert Veeder's first hearing, and for one of the few times in my life, I didn't know who I was. I had been sitting in a Durham courtroom for five months covering the Michael Peterson murder trial. Now, suddenly, I was surrounded by reporters I knew--and the cameras and recorders were pointed at me. Someone asked me if I was working. I told him I didn't know. I was there for a friend. No notes.

"Don't hate this man," I said, the sun-drenched street a mocking sight when you are going to see a friend banished from the unfiltered light of day for a long, long time.

In the small courtroom, there was standing room only, the sound of quiet sobs and low comforting murmurs. The families and friends of the dead and the living united in sadness and loss, unable to speak, to reach across the abyss.

Larry, clad in orange, was led, stricken, ashen, able only to whisper assent to his understanding of the charges--surreal, claustrophobic. I have a visceral reaction to the idea of institutions and confinement, and here was my friend enveloped by both. The hearing ended and I left.

More irony. A man who had just finished having a bit of fun over an over-hyped murder case ends up being a public supporter for one of the most despised members of American society--the drunk driver who kills. Fate sometimes directs one to do things, and this was one of those times. A delicate act--supporting a killer within the naturally confining limitations of the natural rage and heartbreak of scores of survivors. I'd bet the Bank of Zurich he'd have done the same for me.

Blinker spent five months in the Wake County Jail. He could have gotten out on bail, but there were fears that he might have tried something, um, desperate. When Attorney Rick Gammon went to see him, Larry huddled in the corner, crying. Gammon just sat on the edge of the cot, told him who he was and waited until Larry was ready to talk.

Wednesdays at the Berkeley Cafe jam, where he used to play his squeeze box or his harmonica, I would stand in the back parking lot, washed in the roar of the HVAC units of the jail looming in the background. Sometimes I would see a figure in a narrow window high over McDowell Street and wonder.

I went to see him, summoned by word of mouth out on the street. My piddly half-hour was just a taste of what he did day in and day out in the days and weeks afterward--wondering, crying, lamenting what dark fate had brought him to this place. We never talked about the night. He was teaching people how to read and write .

"Was that you in the window," I asked him, separated by two-inch glass and steel and concrete the color of wallpaper paste.

"Until they moved me," Larry said.

The day of his judgment arrived. Larry stripped himself of the frills and trimmings of the fine raiments we delude ourselves with, knelt all but naked before Judge James C. Spencer Jr., lowered his head and bid the court do what they would. He never said "but," he never denied he was drunk or that it wasn't his fault. At the side of the road, an astonished, traumatized survivor, stunned and broken, asked the sky who had done it.

"I did it," he said simply, seated on the ground, clutching his knees with his arms and unnoticed until he spoke. "I did it."

Rick Gammon had nothing to do but read from the stack of letters asking for mercy from as far as South Africa, manage the court, and negotiate the sentence.

"My client is here to plead guilty, no slick lawyer tricks." A guilty plea, no deals, no nothing.

Courtroom 3C holds around 90 people and there were no empty seats. I counted 20 or so who were there for Blinker. He sat, head down, face the color of a Styrofoam cup, while the survivors told of their loss, their agony, the ruined lives. One woman spoke of a pain so acute, and made so real, that no one dared breathe, the only sound that of the muffled sobs while she took the court, the judge, the families, the cops and the law itself through a hole in the world, falling down, down through sheets of glass, shattering and jingling in the darkness--forever falling. And when we got to the end, when she stopped speaking, everyone, from the hardened troopers down to that broken man, Blinker, knew she was in a place from which she would never emerge--perhaps eventually getting better, but never well.

The emotions cascaded around that courtroom like chimney swifts, the relentless agonizing series of stories, remembrances. The only thing Larry could do was just sit there and take it, part of the trial that he had to endure, to have them watch him agonize and twist on their words.

Only when he stood and the wise and decent Judge Spencer began to read the sentence did Larry's color begin to return--from the relief of having it over, "closure" (that dreaded modern word). For Blinker and the survivors, there will be no closure, only the sadness of enduring a kind of living death from which there is not the relief of death, only a numbing day in and day out of the prisons that billow in our heads like thunderstorm clouds on a summer day.

And at the end, redemption. Along with the waves of sorrow and loss, there was one emotion I felt that day that I didn't expect. You never know what is going to happen until reel three. I'll say it with no pretty allusions or writerly dramatics. Love. There. I said it. Love. All those people, a hundred or so--the news people, the families, the friends, the cops--no one who was there that day ever needs to talk about it again with anyone else who was. There is no need. And no one who was there can explain it to someone who wasn't. There is no way to convey what happened, for the words don't exist. There is no sense in even trying. But there it was: love, alloyed with the keenest sort of shared loss that led one of the victim's family members to approach one of Blinker's friends, one of my friends, to ask if she was a friend or family of Larry.

"Friend," Mary said.

"I am so sorry for your friend, his family--him," the woman said.

The woman took Mary in her arms and held her.

"The other four women came over in a semi-circle," Mary later told me. "The niece who had spoken in the courtroom asked me, if I could, to let Larry know that they don't hate him. I thanked them for being so brave, so kind. Amazing, amazing grace, I thought. And I told them I'd be sure and let Larry know." EndBlock

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