Sunday, August 14, 2016

Saturday In Holcomb, Kansas

The journey from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to Holcomb, Kansas, is long and tedious.  A short drive east leaves the vast and majestic Rockies a mere fleck in the rearview mirror, and soon they are replaced by sprawling and never-ending farmland.  The towns along the way seem more depressing than other run-of-the-mill, rural America areas: their Main Streets are devoid of people; their store fronts boarded up, fluorescent open signs noticeably off. The majority of the trip I took was so desolate, in fact, that there were times when I was genuinely worried my Jeep would break down and I’d be left to fend for myself on the side of these roads-less-traveled, my only weapon the plastic snow shovel every smart Coloradan carries in the back of their car.  Thankfully, the only attacks I was unable to ward off were from the giant insects, presumably locusts, that rammed their bodies into my windshield, exploding with a pop, their sulfur-yellow guts reminding me that I was an interloper there, disturbing the order of that Kansas universe at every stop light and with every right-hand turn. 

The way I see it, there are two reasons one visits Holcomb: to see family who may live there, or, in my case, to catch a glimpse of a house that was the site of a crime so gruesome, it drew the unlikeliest of visitors in 1959, including the flamboyant and flashy Truman Capote and his childhood friend Nelle “Harper” Lee, whose novel To Kill a Mockingbird was still several months away from its publishing date. Like Capote and Lee, I, too, came to write a story about the crime that has made Holcomb infamous, even nearly sixty years later.

I am talking, of course, of the murders that took place at the Clutter house in November of 1959.  Two career criminals, Dick Hickok and Perry Smith, broke into the Clutter home late one Sunday after being told Herb Clutter had a safe full of money hidden in the house.  The men found little more than fifty dollars, and wanting to leave behind no witnesses, they slit Mr. Clutter’s throat before fatally shooting him and the other members of his family, including his wife, Bonnie, and their two children, Nancy and Kenyon.  The two men were arrested more than a month later, and the events leading up to their capture and subsequent hangings were chronicled in Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, a book considered by many to be the first nonfiction novel ever published.

Driving alone, I had more than enough time to think about what I planned to do once I arrived in Holcomb.  With an arrival time of around noon, I figured I’d swing by the house, take some pictures, and then get something to eat in town and ask a few locals their thoughts on the case and why it still draws people to the town today.  As I turned off of Route 50 East and made my way into Holcomb, I realized the day was probably not going to go as planned.  Like many of the other towns I had encountered on my drive, Holcomb is more of a place you drive through on your way to somewhere else.  There is a Tyson Foods plant just on the outer edge of town, and as I passed it, I could see a water tower in the distance, the town’s name printed on it in big, black letters. HOLCOMB. My heart started pumping just a little bit faster, the adrenaline coursing through my veins.  I was excited and frightened, unsure of what lay ahead.  I passed Holcomb High School on my left, a building much more sprawling and newer than I had expected.  Down the road a little further on my right was a community park that I actually missed on my way in.  As I left town, I noticed the sign dedicating it to the memory of the Clutter family.
 "Holcomb Community Park Dedicated to the Herb, Bonnie Clutter Family"

I drove past the post office and took a right on Main Street, expecting to see shops or diners.  There was nothing except the elementary school, really, and I drove on, anticipating turning onto Oak Avenue, which was much closer than I had expected.

There is not much to Oak Avenue. I was struck by how short it was; it veered to the right and made a loop around the neighborhood, which consisted of rundown houses with a trailer park in the middle.  Right before I made the turn, I noticed the dirt lane that jutted out from the street.  Had I not seen the row of trees leading down the path, I would have driven right by the property.  I parked the Jeep and looked out over the field, finally setting eyes on the house, Capote’s words coming to me all at once: “Situated at the end of a long, lanelike driveway shaded by rows of Chinese elms, the handsome white house, standing on an ample lawn of groomed Bermuda grass, impressed Holcomb…”(Capote, 9).   

The row of Chinese elms Capote wrote about in his novel.  The house is visible just above the gate in this picture.

I was struck by how solitary the house was.  It was separated from the rest of Oak Avenue by a fairly expansive field, and I can only imagine that the neighborhood was even starker—if it even existed—when Hickok and Perry committed the murders in 1959.  The same Chinese elms that lined the driveway were still there, and a gate, open when I visited, separated the lane from the road.  A private property/no trespassing sign was affixed to a tree, and when I saw it, a sense of shame came over me.  What the hell was I doing driving all of this way to take pictures of someone’s house?  What purpose did this trip serve? Was I there to find a story or to sate my morbid curiosity?  I snapped a few quick photos and then drove off, my proverbial tail between my legs as I realized the answer to my own question.

The house is across the field from Oak Avenue.  This is the closest one can get without trespassing on private property.

I contemplated driving the six or so miles to Garden City to grab something to eat and explore a bit more, but by that time, the trip had lost its luster and I knew it was best to just head back home. 

Some stories, it seems, do not need a retelling.    

Capote, Truman.  In Cold Blood.  Random House, 1965.  

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