Hook, Line, and Stringtown

by Jenny Sullivan


While traveling Route 75, I’ve passed by an unassuming little shack hundreds of times. Years ago, when my dad and I were making our trips to Texas and back, I caught glimpses of the hanging flower baskets and bushels of imperial plums and ruddy tomatoes. This spring, I was baited by the colors and stopped at the stand; I’ve been back several times since. Each time I dropped in, Phyllis, a humble woman with frosted hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and a friendly smile, and sometimes another chatty Stringtown local, had a new juicy tidbit of history to tell me. I looked forward to my travels down the trail that runs past her place, but even before Phyllis had her fruit stand, I had a special love for this road.

When I was young, Route 75 represented the few moments alone with my favorite man in the world. I’d anxiously await the arrival of my dad’s old blue pickup, coming to whisk me far away from the misery of my mother’s smoke-filled home. Our trips down 75 were the highlight of my dreary childhood, but my hopes ended one hot July evening when my mom took me to Dairy Queen, handed me an ice cream, and told me my father wouldn’t be coming to get me that summer. Confused, I asked why. Her face flashed red, her eyes filled with tears, and she whispered, “Baby, he’s in prison.”

A few months went by. No one was talking about what happened, so I decided to write my dad. Surely he would tell me. When I saw an envelope with a cartoon drawing I knew it was his answer; he always paid a fellow prisoner to sketch a little something for me. I skimmed his two page letter, and when I found his response my heart deflated.

“It’s a long story, but I got in trouble over some money,” he wrote. He left me afloat on a tide of unanswered questions.

I wrote him a few times after that but never got to visit him, never knew where he lived during his nearly three year sentence. The only prison I had ever seen was the Mack Alford Correctional Center that sits nestled among rolling hills in Stringtown; that’s the place I pictured when I thought of him behind bars.

Over twenty years have passed. Dad has long been released, and I occasionally travel down our old road to see him at his north Texas home. However, until this year I still didn’t know the full story of how he ended up incarcerated. This spring, thanks to that curious little fruit stand, I arrived over the state line armed with a story I hoped would snare the truth of our past.

He sat outside puffing on a cigarette when I pulled up. I had just seen him at Christmas but was struck by how he had changed since our long drives together. His blue eyes were missing the mischievous spark I remembered so well. I saw a different man, but I believed my dad was still there, hidden behind the veil bad choices and age had cast over him.

“There’s my little girl.” He slowly hobbled toward me extending his usual greeting. He reaching out his arms and engulfed me in a hug. Finally something I recognized, the smell of his aftershave. He ushered me into the house; we sat down and began to chat. After a few minutes, he asked about my drive, and it was time to cast my line. I told him how I struck up a conversation with Phyllis, fruit vendor/ story teller. I’d seen a few yellowed articles hanging haphazardly on the sagging wall near the door and asked her about the story of Bonnie and Clyde. Her eyes revealed she had her own version of the story to tell. She rested her elbows on the cracked countertop, mopped her brow with a balled up napkin, and slowly unraveled the saga of the Stringtown Shootout.

It happened on a muggy August evening in 1932. Folks from all over Atoka County were enjoying an outdoor dance. The town sheriff, Charles Maxwell, and his new deputy, Eugene Moore, were driving back from Atoka after picking up a woman who was reportedly an escaped convict; they stopped off at the shindig, just steps from the building that is now the Hillview Fruit Stand, to make sure things were going smoothly.

Maxwell and Moore noticed two men sitting in an unfamiliar car, likely drinking an illegal alcoholic beverage. One of the strangers was the notorious Clyde Barrow. By that night he had already spent a few hard years in prison, and those years had transformed him from a petty thief into a stone cold killer. His lethal lover Bonnie Parker had gone to visit her family while Clyde and a buddy were having a little fun. Clyde’s friend, Raymond Hamilton, was a native Oklahoma boy. Even though he and the Barrow Gang had committed multiple robberies and murders, he considered himself a gentleman and had a boyish grin that surely would’ve won him a few spins around the dance floor. But Clyde, without his beloved Bonnie, had commenced to drinking; Raymond followed suit.

Maxwell, privy to what these two boys were doing, strode confidently to the car and commanded them to get out; he was taking them into custody. Deputy Moore watched from his car as the two gang members shot Maxwell several times. The young deputy hadn’t even taken aim before he caught a bullet in the head; he was killed instantly. Maxwell lived, but was permanently paralyzed. Both Barrow and Hamilton escaped unharmed in a car they had stolen earlier that day.

They made it out of Stringtown alive, but eventually met poetic justice. Just short of two years after the shootout, Clyde, along with Bonnie, went down in another gun fight with four Texas marshals.

Raymond was sent to the electric chair a year after his one-time partner’s final standoff with authority.

With my net cast, I looked at my dad and knew he was hooked; it was time to reel him in. My heart was pounding; I began to doubt I could pull this off, but the secret I longed to know rested just below the surface of the murky water in front of me.

“Ya know, Dad, this story got me thinking. I know you never killed anybody; you’re nothing like Clyde or Raymond, but I still don’t know what you did do.” I waited. The fear that I had offended him began to settle in the pit of my stomach.

His head was hanging a bit; he shifted his gaze to meet my eyes then stared back down at the table, his internal struggle playing across his face. Just when I thought I’d blown it, he began to tell me everything.

He told me that back when he was president of a bank, he’d taken a big chunk of money from the dean of an Oklahoma university, off the record. He had a plan to use the money to make a big profit, but when he returned from an investment trip he was empty-handed, and the FBI was waiting.

Because he’d testified against a couple of major money launderers a few months before, he thought he’d be pardoned. As if talking about the weather, he leaned back in his chair and nonchalantly told me those men whom he helped convict had put contracts out on his life, but his bitterness began to show through in his grimace and growl as he spoke of the trial. He said he walked into court, no attorney, and without hesitation the judge charged him with fraud; he was immediately sentenced to three years in a minimum-security prison in Big Spring, Texas.

“Those were the worst days of my life,” he said. With a cheerless expression, he leaned forward, put his hand over mine. “The punishment of prison isn’t what happens to you while you’re there— that’s bad—but the real price is paid by your family, and there you sit trapped behind those walls completely unable to help.”

I sat stunned by the deluge of information my dad had just revealed to me. I’d finally snagged the elusive truth I had sought since that first letter I wrote him twenty-four years ago.

Later that evening I drifted back onto the highway, and as I passed Phyllis’s quiet little stand, I sent her an unheard thank you for the net she unknowingly handed me as she told me her tale and sold me some sage.