From the Archive — From the March 2017 issue

Life on the Line

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I was chief inmate clerk at a prison housing nearly three thousand convicts, and it was part of my duty to keep an up-to-the-minute record of the inmate population. When a new inmate arrived I was notified immediately, and when a prisoner was to be discharged I was notified in advance — with one exception. I received no notice of an impending execution, simply because no execution was ever a certainty until the condemned man was literally on his way from the death cell to the execution chamber. At that point the receiver would be lifted from the telephone on the wall just outside the door, thus cutting off all contact with the outside world.

Not knowing any of the occupants of death row personally, and having no direct contact with them, I wasn’t greatly moved by their plight. But one execution which took place in 1953 perturbed me quite a bit and still lingers in my memory like a bad dream.

On that particular day — a Thursday, I believe — a lone Negro convict of about thirty whom I shall call Tom Waike sat on a bench with two small boys, one on either side of him. The lads, about five and six years of age, were clothed neatly in long pants, dark coats with matching visored caps, and brown shoes. They were staring up into the man’s face.

The man’s eyes were fixed on the floor. His lips were moving but I was too far away to hear his voice.

The picture added up to just one thing: a condemned convict having his last visit. Turning to the guard, I said, “His children?”

“Yeah,” the guard replied. “That’s Tom Waike. He comes down tomorrow morning.”

“What do you suppose he’s telling his boys?”

“I don’t have to suppose,” the guard said. “I know what he’s telling them kids. He’s telling them the governor and parole board won’t let him die tomorrow.”

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