I was in the summer of my tenth year when John Dillinger met with my father to discuss the terms of his surrender, a summer so hot you felt as if you were burning from the inside out. A summer so hot it made a man reflect upon his past and whether he had any future at all. In the year he’d spent at large robbing banks in the Midwest, John Dillinger had grown into a legend admired by poor folk all over the country, and he’d grown tired of being hunted like an animal.
My father, Robert Butler, was a newspaperman, a profession that used to mean something far more than it does today. Back then people read the paper, talked about what they read, and took pride in knowing what was going on. And people took men like my father at their word, trusted them, looked to them for guidance and advice, welcoming them into their living rooms and kitchens every morning like a favorite uncle with a good story to tell.
My father was a feature writer for one of the major Indianapolis dailies, and a Robert Butler byline meant you were in for the unexpected. His articles were read as far away as Washington DC, for my father had opinions on the great issues of the day that great men found of value. But it was the simple folk for whom he wrote, using plain-speaking prose that made you feel as if he were sitting right next to you with his arm around your shoulder, whispering in your ear, telling you secrets just between you and him. At the same time, he would let you know that his opinion was just one of many, that he wasn’t—and couldn’t be—always right, that he expected you to take what he wrote and think for yourself. Those simple people, those humble readers he loved so much, for whom he toiled endless late nights, took him at his word. They trusted him.
John Dillinger trusted him too.
Dad wrote several articles about Indiana’s most infamous son, but he’d always tell the truth—that John Dillinger couldn’t have robbed two banks in the same day a hundred and fifty miles apart; that maybe one of those bankers was hiding something. And we lived only seven miles from the Dillinger farmhouse. My father knew Johnnie, would see him around from time to time, and knew Dillinger wasn’t as bad as everyone painted him out to be.
The call came in a little after noon that mid-July day. We lived in a small, one-story brick house in Plainfield, a bedroom community twenty miles outside of Indianapolis, where my father had his office in the back bedroom. He liked being able to keep his own hours and write whatever stories interested him without having an editor constantly telling him what to do. That meant Dad was home for lunch every day, and I couldn’t wait to hear about what he was writing, because I wanted to be a writer too.
The phone rang, and my father continued eating his soup, content to let it ring. My mother never could.
“We should answer it, Robert,” she said. “It might be important.”
Dad calmly took another spoonful of soup. “Might be, might not. Might just be folderol.”
Mom rolled her eyes and grabbed for the receiver, bringing it to her ear. “This is the Butler residence.”
It was never “hello.” My mother always loved the way the servants answered the phone in those movies about the rich and the well-to-do. She said the greeting was used by the well-bred and she wanted to bring a little bit of that elegance into our home. That day was different. As soon as those words left her mouth, her countenance changed, the soft planes of her face shifting into an expression of unease. A knot formed in my stomach.
“I’m sorry, what did you say? I’m getting a lot of static on my end. Oh, wait, it’s clear now. Can you repeat what you said?”
She listened, the frown lines between her dark brown eyes deepening.
“All right, sir, hold on a minute.” She pulled the receiver away from her ear and covered the mouthpiece with her other hand. “It’s John Dillinger Senior. He wants to speak to you.”
My father hesitated for only a moment before putting down his spoon and rising from the table. I watched him take the receiver from my mother, marveling, as always, at his height. He was a large-framed, physically imposing man whose hands still exhibited the hard calluses of a youth spent toiling on his parents’ farm, yet they were soft and gentle against my skin. His face was permanently windburned from those years in the searing sun, leaving him with a fine web of crow’s feet around his eyes that crinkled when he laughed. He had dark brown hair just going gray at the temples and a square, angular face that on another would have looked hard and bitter, but on him gave the impression of sincerity, an impression that he was a man who would listen to your confessions and take them to his grave.
“Hello, Mr. Dillinger, what can I do for you?” he asked.
He listened, his lips pursing, while the man on the other end spoke his piece. He nodded as the man talked, keeping his bright blue eyes on me as I sat at the kitchen table and pretended not to eavesdrop.
“Yes, sir, I understand what you’re asking . . . No, it’s no trouble at all . . .”
He winked at me then, letting me know not to worry, that everything was under control. I hadn’t realized until that moment that I’d been holding my breath—terrified that something awful had happened.
“All right, Mr. Dillinger.” My father glanced at his watch. “It’s half past twelve. If I leave now, I should get there a little after one . . . Yes, sir, I’ll see you and your boy then. Thank you.”
Dad hung up the phone and stood a moment staring at it, a curious little smile on his lips.
“Yes, Millie?” he said, his gaze still locked on the phone.
My mother rolled her eyes. “Do I have to pull everything out of you like some two-bit dentist?”
That broke the spell, and my father went for his jacket and his hat, both hanging on a wall rack next to the front door. “John Dillinger wants to surrender,” he said. “Told his father I was the only man he could trust to make that happen safely.”
Mom’s eyes widened. “Oh my Lord. Why’d he call you?”
“He liked what I wrote about him.”
“Are you leaving now?”
“John’s holed up at the farm and he can’t stay there long. Too risky.”
“You be careful then, okay?” she asked, giving him a quick peck on the lips.
Dad smiled and let her help him slip on his linen jacket. Then he plucked his straw boater off the hat hook and placed it on his head with a rakish tilt that brought a smile to my mother’s face.
Then he turned to me. “You ready to get the scoop, Lizzie?”
I leapt up from the table. “And how!”
Mom’s eyes widened. “Robert, have you lost your mind? Dillinger’s a killer, and you’re going to take your ten-year-old daughter to meet him?”
Dad chuckled and grasped my mother’s shoulders. “Honey, the man trusts me because I always wrote the truth about his exploits. I never pandered, and he knows that. He figures with a newspaperman bringing him in, they won’t shoot him. And he’s never killed anyone, Millie, it’s all made up.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do. I know the family, and I have my sources.”
“You always say that,” Mom snapped. “Sources can lie, can’t they?”
Dad sighed. “Millie, I don’t have time to argue. I need to go.”
“Then leave Lizzie with me.”
“No, I want to go!”
My mother ignored what must have been a look of profound disappointment in my eyes, but my father saw it as clear as a drop of blood on white silk sheets. He never missed anything.
“I thought you had your Women’s Club meeting today.”
“I do, but—”
“Do you think it’s appropriate to take her? She’ll be bored stiff.”
“It’s a lot more appropriate than taking her to a meeting with the most notorious bank robber in America! What if the police show up?”
“And how do you know that?”
“Because they never look in the obvious places.”
“Robert . . . please.”
Instead of answering, my father stared back at her with that stark, implacable gaze he had.
Mom sighed and shook her head. She knew my father would get his way, but she could never let him have it without speaking her mind, and that was why he loved her.
“John Dillinger wants my help—he wants to do the right thing. Lizzie and I will be fine.”
She chucked him on the arm. “I know . . . but I don’t have to like it.”
My father grinned and kissed her cheek, eliciting a tiny smile despite her frustration and annoyance.
“Come on, Scoop, let’s go.”
Even though we lived on a shady street, Dad kept his LaSalle in a rented space in a garage two blocks away on East Main. That 1933 LaSalle Coupe was his most prized possession, the first new car he’d ever owned. He loved the power of its V-8 engine, said it was like driving some untamed beast. And that’s what he called it, the Beast. I loved to watch him drive it, feeling the vibrations of the engine and the road through the springs in my seat. I didn’t often get the chance to ride with my father, especially while he was working.
The sun felt as if it were pressing down on me, baking every inch of my body. My father never noticed the heat. He liked to walk at a fast pace, dodging slower pedestrians with swift, adroit movements that reminded me of football players I’d seen in the newsreels. I followed in his wake, skipping to keep up with him.
When we reached Vinny’s Garage and Body, I felt as if I’d taken a bath with my clothes on. My father looked as fresh and dry as if he’d simply walked across a room.
Vinny Iazzi, the owner of the garage, slid out from under a Hudson and sat up with a wide grin on his chubby, grease-stained face. “How ya doin’ Mr. B?”
“Just fine, Vinny, just fine. Is the Beast gassed up?”
Vinny nodded, still grinning. “Sure thing, Mr. B. It’s always ready to go. I even patched that tire you was talkin’ about last week.”
My father threw Vinny a silver dollar and waved me over to the car, which sat in the corner without a speck of dust or grime, its black paint gleaming in the glare of the overhead lights. We both climbed in, and a minute later we shot out of the garage onto East Main.
We turned onto Route 267 and took that gently winding street the entire way. The air blowing in through the open windows was still warm, but pleasant. The one thing that wasn’t pleasant was seeing all the abandoned farms, the roofs of the houses sagging like the backs of old nags, tractors rusting in the middle of fields gone to weed.
We kept ourselves entertained by singing our favorite silly songs. Dad had a rich baritone that I loved to hear, so I let him do most of the singing, as my untrained voice sounded like a cat screeching.
We reached the Dillinger home on Northridge Drive just before one o’clock. The house was modest—one and a half stories with a peaked roof and a small front porch with a swing. As Dad braked the Beast in the short, graveled driveway, he turned to me, his expression grave. “Now, Lizzie, you need to do everything I’m going to tell you to do, okay?”
“Good,” he said, running his fingers through my curly hair. “While I’m meeting with John, you need to wait on the porch, and if you see anything coming down that road, no matter what it is, you need to give a holler. Understand?”
“I’m going to be a lookout?” My eyes must have lit up, because my father’s serious expression vanished. “That’s right—a lookout. Can I count on you, Lizzie?”
I nodded, and he caressed my cheek.
“You’re looking like your mother more and more every day.”
We climbed out of the car just as an older man emerged from the house, the screen door banging shut behind him. He was shorter than my father, whippet thin, and he wore overalls with white long johns underneath. The long johns were yellowed with sweat stains and the overalls were faded and patched. The old man wore a battered straw hat above a face that was all sharp angles with dry, weathered skin stretched over jutting cheekbones. His gray eyes looked as if they’d seen all the sorrow in the world.
He lifted his hand in a languid wave. “Afternoon, Mr. Butler. Thank you for comin’.”
I followed my father up the drive and onto the porch, where he grasped the older man’s hand, giving it a quick, emphatic shake. “Mr. Dillinger, it’s nice to see you again. And this is my daughter, Lizzie.”
The elder Dillinger bent down, his thin, chapped lips creasing into a gap-toothed smile. “Well, ain’t you a pretty little thing.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, trying to keep from gagging on the man’s odor, a combination of sour sweat and manure.
He stood and looked to my father. “Johnnie’s inside,” he said, motioning with his head.
My father moved to the screen door and opened it, turning to me. “Remember, Lizzie, if you see anything at all, you holler, okay?”
“Okay, Daddy,” I said, not wanting to be left alone with the old man.
My father walked into the house, and before the door slammed shut, I caught the dim outline of a man reaching to shake his hand.
“Come on over and set with me, child,” the elder Dillinger said, heading for the porch swing. He plopped his rangy body into it, and it swayed in a lazy arc, the chains squeaking like frightened mice.
I looked at it dubiously, as the chains were rusty, and the white paint was peeling off the swing in huge patches. I didn’t want to sit next to him, but I didn’t want to be impolite either, so I joined him on the swing, sitting as far away as I could.
From where I sat, I could view the road in either direction, and I kept my eyes on it for the first few minutes, until I was distracted by a swaybacked horse in a nearby corral. How fun it would be to ride it.
“Is that your horse, Mr. Dillinger?”
I turned and looked at him, and his eyes held that thousand-yard stare I’d read about in some of the Zane Grey westerns I liked.
“Sure would be nice to ride him,” I said, being pitifully obvious.
Dillinger Senior didn’t take the bait. “It might be, except he’s a plowin’ horse and too tetchy to ride.”
I saw movement in the corner of my eye, and I panicked when I realized it was a car coming down the road. I could hear the blood rushing through my ears, and for a split second I imagined the worst, until I realized it was a dusty pickup truck belching out clouds of oil smoke in its wake. The truck honked as it passed, and Mr. Dillinger raised his hand and waved.
As if sensing my fear, Mr. Dillinger said, “That’s just old Judd; he’s not after Johnnie.”
I kept my eyes on the road from then on. Voices reached me from inside the house and I tried to overhear what was being said, but they were too indistinct to make out any of the words.
Ten minutes later, the screen door opened a crack. “Lizzie?”
“Everything’s okay, Daddy,” I said hurriedly, feeling a knot of guilt in my stomach about the horse.
Dad smiled. “That’s good,” he said, motioning to me. “Come on in. Someone wants to meet you.”
I stood on wobbly legs and my father held the door open for me.
Inside, I was blind for a moment, bright stars swimming in my vision, until my eyes adjusted to the shadowy gloom.
A man sat on a brocaded couch, wearing a white dress shirt open at the neck and a charcoal-gray vest and matching pants. He stood and came over to me, an easy smile creasing his face. That smile did something to me, and it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I understood what that feeling meant. All I knew then was his smile made me feel all rubbery inside.
Dillinger knelt, so he and I were eye to eye, and the smile widened. I saw a darkened tooth, which was the only fault in that smile. His face was stubbled with the beginnings of a beard, and he sported a Clark Gable mustache, and his hair was combed straight back and gleaming with pomade. I noticed these details in passing because it was his gaze that held me, steel-gray eyes that spoke of danger and excitement.
“So, this is my little lookout.”
“Y-Yes, sir,” I managed to stammer.
He chuckled. “Sir? You can call me Johnnie. What do I call you?”
Dillinger’s grin widened. “Well, Lizzie, I want to thank you for helping your dad today. You made me feel really safe.”
That made me smile, despite my guilty conscience. “You’re welcome . . . Johnnie.”
Dillinger laughed. “So, what do you want to be when you grow up, Lizzie?”
Dillinger eyed me with a look tinged with equal measures of curiosity and amusement, then turned to my father, who was smiling proudly. “She’s pretty good already,” Dad said.
“I’ll bet she is,” Dillinger said.
“You don’t look like a bank robber,” I blurted, feeling foolish as soon as the words left my mouth.
Instead of being upset, Dillinger gave me an appraising look. “No? What do I look like then?”
My face flushed as I answered. “A movie star—like Clark Gable.”
Dillinger laughed. “Well, aren’t you the sweetest thing. You think I missed my calling?”
I nodded solemnly, not sure if I was being kidded or not.
“Maybe in another life,” he said, standing up. He shook my father’s hand. “I sure am grateful for your help, Mr. Butler. I couldn’t do this without you. They want me dead.”
“Just stick to the plan and we’ll get you to the police station in one piece.”
We left soon after, and for the drive home Dad and I didn’t talk, nor did we sing. I think both of us were thinking about Johnnie too intently to amuse ourselves with silly songs. I know my father was going over his plan in his mind, trying to discern if there were any flaws. As for me, I kept seeing Johnnie’s easy smile and feeling aglow. He’d talked to me like I was a grown-up, something no one had ever done before.
And now that I’m an old woman and setting these thoughts to paper, I’ve begun to wonder if what I said to Dillinger that day changed something, if his fate would have taken a different turn had I not accompanied my father that day, or if he hadn’t been curious to meet his little lookout.
To my dying day, I’ll always wonder if John Dillinger would have died that day at the Biograph Theatre.
Elizabeth Butler Klungness
July 22, 2014