Commentary: Thoughts of mortality: Humor was brought up short
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 4, 2010 - I'd planned to write a light-hearted column this week about the indignities of aging as reflected by the mail one receives as the years start piling up.
Like most Americans who have managed to survive 50 or more years, I'm being stalked by AARP. I seem to be driving the good folks at Old Farts' Central crazy by my steadfast refusal to sign up.
They routinely send me expensive, glossy brochures highlighting the myriad benefits of membership. These invariably feature smiling grey heads savoring their golden years thanks to the untiring efforts of the AARP. Turns out aging boomers can still get over on the man by virtue of discounted matinee tickets and attractive deals on hemorrhoidal creams.
The trouble is that "AARP" stands for the "American Association of Retired Persons," and I'm not retired. True, I receive a pension for the 21 years I spent on the police force but I also work full-time at the sheriff's office, teach a night school class at a local university and write the weekly column you're reading. By my count, that's three jobs. If this is retirement, I demand a refund.
Change the organization's name to AARF -- American Association of Recalcitrant Fogies -- and I'll consider joining. At least I'd then answer the description.
While fending the advances of AARP, I also have my health insurer to deal with. Too young for Medicare, I'm apparently too old to be left to my own resources. My insurance carrier thus bombards me with a steady stream of medical tips and recommended prophylactic examinations -- including a recent, unsolicited invitation to be the guest of honor at a complimentary colonoscopy.
That last suggestion struck me as one my grandmother would have described as being "forward"; though, given the nature of the procedure, I suppose the opposite case could be made. After I mentioned it in an earlier column, my mother called to urge me to undergo the exam.
Note to Mom: Relax, dear, everything's fine in the nether regions. I just can't recall how insurance agents became licensed to practice medicine. I guess they're trying to keep an eye on my bottom line.
Just when I thought I'd seen it all, the Neptune Society checks in. This outfit would like to cremate me. Headquartered ironically in Plantation, Fla., the N.S. doesn't want me to be planted in a traditional burial but instead encourages me to opt for the environmentally friendly alternative of incineration. Its recent radio ad campaign featured the motto, "Cremation with Confidence."
Well, if there's one thing I hate, it's a tentative cremation. It says here that I've no intention of entering the afterlife medium-rare. Setting aside concerns about my carbon footprint; I'm comforted to learn that I can count on the N.S. for a robust pyre. As they said in the '60s of my youth, "Burn, baby, burn."
And get this: If I fill out the reply card, I'll be entered into a drawing for ... a free cremation! Imagine the smug satisfaction you'd feel rolling into the oven, secure in the knowledge that some other sucker is getting stuck with the tab. Talk about getting over on the man.
Is this a great country, or what? Half-priced movie tickets, free colonoscopies, pre-paid cremations -- and to think that my generation used to waste its time on sex, drugs and rock & roll.
At any rate, those were my thoughts when the weeks' final dark missive arrived. This one came not by mail but by courier -- a process server with a subpoena from the Missouri Supreme Court. This matter does not lend itself to satire.
It seems that the court has established a "special master" to review the capital murder conviction of one Reginald Clemons. The reader will be forgiven if he or she has forgotten who Clemons is because it's been 19 years since the crime occurred for which he was found guilty and condemned by a jury of his peers.
On the night of April 4-5, 1991, Julia Kerry, 20, and her sister, Robin, 19, were beaten, gang-raped and murdered by four thugs on the abandoned Chain-of-Rocks Bridge in far north St. Louis. The girls had gone to the bridge to show a visiting male cousin a poem they'd written there about universal brotherhood. The cousin survived and testified against the assailants at trial.
Along with Marlin Gray and Antonio Richardson, Clemons was sentenced to death. A fourth defendant, Daniel Winfrey, received a 20-year sentence for his role in the crime. He's already been released.
Richardson's sentence was ultimately commuted to life without parole -- "hard life" as the cons call it. He was only 16 years old that night and the court deemed he was thus incapable of fully appreciating the wrongfulness of rape and murder.
Gray was executed five years ago, after which Missouri executions were halted to determine whether lethal injection posed undue hardship on the condemned.
19 years. Barely the blink of an eye in geological terms, but a fair stretch of time for a mere mortal. 19 years ago, I'd never heard of Bill or Hillary Clinton and George W. was the hell-raising son of the sitting president.
My youngest daughter graduated college last May. She was 3 years old when the girls were murdered. She's just started her first real job, and last week I helped her to buy her first new car. To her young eyes, the future is a bright place, filled with glittering promise. Her father sees things differently.
Poring over the yellowed homicide file, he feels like the Ancient Mariner peering into the murky depths of the irretrievable past, haunted by images of things he's never seen but that remain forever etched into the retina of his mind's eye.
The girls have been slapped around, stripped and raped repeatedly. They stand now, naked and shivering against the night's cold, on the support pylons beneath the bridge deck, pleading for their lives as their ruthless captors prepare to shove them to their deaths. 19 years ago...
Clemons has been on death row for about as long as his victims lived. Now that the "lethal injection hurts" appeal has failed, he suddenly remembers that he's innocent.
The present inquest could uphold the original sentence or overturn both the sentence and conviction. The latter option would necessitate a retrial -- dragging the Kerry family through this unspeakable ordeal once more. I understand that supporters have set up a website on Clemons' behalf called "Justice for Reggie."
I sincerely hope that he gets just that. If he does, I'll let him use my free cremation.
M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.