Postcards of the Hanging


It’s 1965 and the Beatles have turned pop music upside down. In the South, the Civil Rights movement is gathering momentum behind Martin Luther King. In Vietnam, the war is heating up. And in Ojibway, Michigan, cheerleader Susie Porter accuses her algebra teacher of rape.

Attorney Joseph Daniels, unaware that his son Robbie has loved Susie since grade school, agrees to defend the teacher. His decision thrusts Robbie into a world he never dreamed existed.

Part To Kill a Mockingbird, part American Graffiti, Postcards of the Hanging is the story of a young man discovering that life is never simple and that truth is often painful.

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Tuesday, January 26, 1965

I was making room for my lunch on the top shelf of the locker and trying to get feeling back into my face from the winter wind. The Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week,” which I’d heard on WTAC for the first time the night before, was running through my head and I was trying to figure out the guitar riff now that I was taking lessons. I thought it was a chord fingering that George just moved up the neck, but I wasn’t sure.

Dave Scott grabbed my shoulder. His parents let him grow his hair after seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan—most of us still sported something like a shaggy crew cut—and now his bangs stuck to his forehead.

“You hear about Susie Porter?”

“No, what’s—?”

“Mr. Elder knocked her up!”

The song vanished. I clutched my locker door and waited for the floor to stop rocking. Dave cracked his knuckles, so revved up that his zits glowed.

“Jesus, Dave, if Ron Guthrie hears you saying that…”

“No joke, man, it’s the truth.” His voice jumped an octave on “truth,” and I remembered that Dave never could tell a joke to save his life anyway.

“She’s gonna have a baby, and she says Mr. Elder did it.”

Susie and I both had Mr. Elder for algebra II. He was the new math teacher at Ojibway that year, good-looking enough so lots of girls probably had a crush on him.

“Are you shitting me?”

“Uh-uh.” The only color in Dave’s face was those zits. “I couldn’t believe it either.”

Neither could anyone in my homeroom, and classes weren’t much quieter. Teachers ignored every comment and question, but I could see that they were all running on auto pilot, maybe even more shocked than we were. By third period, I knew that I had a sub in algebra and Mr. Elder was in jail. The whole world collapsed in shards around me.

Susie Porter, the most popular girl in Ojibway High School, was pregnant. We’d all been warned about sex and venereal disease and going all the way, but we knew that those were just the stories adults always used to keep you in line, like the Boogie Man. Now, all of a sudden, they were true. And a teacher had done it.

Mr. Elder’s substitute was the old guy who always wore a faded gray suit and ran a really tight ship, and today he looked edgy enough so nobody tried to give him any grief. Actually, we were all too dazed to even think about it. He gave us busy-work, but no one finished it. I heard the lights humming above me and somebody crying behind me, trying to hide it from the rest of us who were too afraid to join in. Two rows over from me, Susie’s empty desk loomed big as the football field.

In last period study hall, my girlfriend Barb Davidson and I spent the whole class staring at homework neither of us remembered how to do. When the bell rang, we trudged to her locker, then mine, then outside.

“Why, Robbie?” The wind whirled her words past me so I barely heard them. I’d noticed her hair like copper on the first day of school. Her voice gave me a boner. But I was sixteen: looking at the hole in a donut could do the same thing. She was the only girl I’d ever dated and I remembered a
night on her couch, only a little over a month before, when we’d almost Done It. Thinking about Susie, I didn’t have a boner today.

“I mean, everybody likes Susie. Why did he have to pick her?”

Her hand squeezed mine through our gloves and I knew it wasn’t just the cold that made her shake. My bones felt like glass.

“I don’t know.”

She buried her face in my shoulder and I held her until she stopped sobbing. Somewhere nearby, a snow shovel scraped against cement.

When we reached her door, she wiped her nose quickly before she took her books back. “Call me tonight?”

“Sure.” I had a feeling things wouldn’t get any better.

Uncle Herb met me at our front door. “Joe wants to talk to you as soon as he gets here. You want chocolate?”

Joe was my dad. I poured milk from the pan Uncle Herb already had simmering into the mug with Nestle’s Quik at the bottom and helped him fix dinner, still amazed at how little his missing arm hampered him. German artillery scored a direct hit on his truck, only weeks before V-E Day, killing the rest of his platoon. He took over a year to grow new skin over the second and third-degree burns that covered eighty per cent of his body. Twenty years later, the shrapnel in his left leg still made him limp.

Uncle Herb filled in for my mother, who died when I was born. It hit Dad so hard that he didn’t even keep any pictures of her. Except for an occasional legal client coming by after his office hours, I never saw a woman in our house in all the time I was growing up.

I offered to help Uncle Herb make the meat loaf, a good choice for a cold January night, but he shook his head, adding breadcrumbs and cracking an egg with one hand while I told him about Susie.

“Maybe that’s what Joe wants to talk to you about.” Uncle Herb’s voice always sounded like he was waiting for one more card to fill a really good poker hand.

“You mean he’s defending Mr. Elder?”

“He didn’t say. Guess we’ll have to wait ’till he gets home.”