“You going to get used to wearing them chains after a while. Don’t you ever stop listening to them clinking.” From “Cool Hand Luke”
“Holy Mother of God!” cried my great aunt Isabel Manley (Aunt ‘Tot’). She stood at the sink looking out the kitchen window into the woods and the railroad tracks behind their house. Her brother Charlie had escaped from the Norfolk Medium Security Prison in the adjoining town about five miles away. He emerged from the trees behind the house and Aunt Tot spotted him. Charlie was the baby of the family. He worked for the town as a laborer, which may indicate limited ability, but from a family with some connections in the town.
Two plain clothes detectives were waiting for him. My mother, when she was about twelve, and my grandmother, Molly Manley Laracy, had gone to the West Street house to await developments after the news circulated in Walpole about Charlie’s breakout. The cops waited patiently while my great grandmother, Margaret McHugh Manley, served Charlie what turned out to be (I believe) his last home cooked meal. He was twenty nine. What happened after that remains fuzzy.
“You know, that’s the first thing that got me about this place, that there wasn’t anybody laughing. I haven’t heard a real laugh since I came through that door, do you know that? Man, when you lose your laugh, you lose your footing.” Ken Kesey, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
In the depths of the Depression, Charlie Manley robbed a gas station with a toy gun. His motive is unknown. Piecing together the story from my ninety four year old mother and my one hundred and three year old Aunt Mary left some gaps. Other than the prison break story that my mother related to me recently, neither has any strong recollection of Charlie: he was kind to them as young girls, quiet, and a little shy, worked hard.
His older sister, Julia, married Timothy Cullinane, who rose through the ranks to become the respected and more than a little feared big Irish chief of police in Walpole. Timmy was jovial to his grand nephews and nieces, red faced, well over six feet with broad shoulders and a barrel chest. Their home was the family Christmas afternoon gathering place for a buffet feast, storytelling and laughter while we cousins were growing up. I learned as I got older that Uncle Timmy was not to be trifled with as a cop, however, and more than a few skulls suffered some dents from his night stick as a patrolman, then sergeant. His only child, Marie, taught at Boston College for many years.
Charlie’s father, Dan Manley, worked for the railroad as many Irish did, as a switch operator, steadier employment than many immigrants enjoyed. Aunt Tot stayed in the West Street house and took care of her parents, the proverbial Irish spinster working as a carder, combing cotton at Kendall Mills, Walpole’s largest employer. She and her brother, my Uncle John, lived in the house all of their lives, drifting into a mostly uneventful retirement. John had one healthy lung left after injuries sustained in a German mustard gas attack in the trenches of 1918 France. What I remember most about John was wry kidding of his grand nephew, his smoky laugh and his yellow, nicotine stained fingers. What I remember most about Aunt Tot was her cackling laugh that terrified me as a young boy. The smell of the old house lingers, cigarette smoke, a faint scent of aging and fading decrepitude – flower patterned, rough textured, lumpy living room furniture and a wall of full bookshelves, not show books, but gently worn. John’s pile of books rested on a side table by his lounger near the back window. Tot and John died within months of each other in 1966. Kid brother Charlie died in 1959 at the age of fifty six in the Bridgewater State Prison Hospital for the Criminally Insane, having never climbed out of “the system.”
“I listened to them fade away till all I could hear was my memory of the sound.” Ken Kesey, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
How Charlie made his way from Norfolk Medium Security Prison work parties in the local fields to deep incarceration in Bridgewater and why he fell from view from the family and everyone else is a mystery I hope to understand some day. Research on a forgotten prisoner who died over fifty years ago is a slog. No one at Norfolk Prison or Bridgewater State Hospital is amenable to giving out information over the phone. Perhaps someday I’ll find time to drive there and ask for the records. Whether they are forthcoming is a tale for another day. I hope it is not a “Cuckoo’s Nest” dreadful story of the incorrigible escapee the system cannot slot or handle, who succumbs to a thirties era enforced lobotomy and early death. The Irish family closed ranks tightly, and my mother and aunt have no idea what became of him.
A Hassidic rabbi once wrote this prayer: Let me not die while I am still alive. Did Charlie spend his years yearning to go back to what he had? When did he realize it wouldn’t be there anymore? He made mistakes beyond mending and became a ghost. There was no happy ending for Charlie.
“If he breaks a thing down, there is no rebuilding; if he imprisons a man, there is no release.” Job 12:14