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[From the Archive]

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.”

The next morning I went out into the corridor and watched the officials and witnesses enter the elevator.

A guard closed the heavy steel gate across the elevator entrance, handing the key to one of the officials, who put it in his pocket.

Back at the office, the big electric clock on the wall showed five minutes past ten. My eyes wandered to the telephone on my desk, its thin insulated wire disappearing into a metal conduit in the floor. Tom Waike’s only hope for life now lay in a fragile wire like that. And as the red hand on the clock sped around the dial, that one remaining lifeline was becoming thinner.

Yesterday Waike had seemed confident that he would be saved from the chair. I wondered how he was feeling now with only minutes left to live. In my mind’s eye I could see him seated between his two small sons, his big arms wrapped around their shoulders.

I was abruptly jolted out of my reverie by the harsh clamoring of the telephone bell. I grabbed the phone and said, “Control office — Reid speaking.” I could hear someone breathing heavily on the other end of the line. The switchboard operator asked, “Do you know of any way I can get in touch with the warden? I have an urgent call here from the governor and I can’t raise the fifth floor.”

The governor was halting the execution! Or was he?

My eyes flew to the clock on the wall. Ten minutes past ten. Was it too late?

I slammed the phone down and shot out of my chair. There wouldn’t be time for anyone to pick out the right keys and go up the seldom-used stairway, unlocking at least one door on each floor.

From a drawer in the captain’s desk I took a rubber slingshot with a forked handle which a guard had taken from a convict. Hastily looking around for something to use as ammunition, I snatched a handful of paper clips and raced out to the courtyard.

I realized the situation was virtually hopeless; but I tried anyhow. The paper clips just weren’t heavy enough to make it across the roof of the main building and reach the windows on the fifth floor. In desperation I scanned the courtyard for a pebble or other object heavy enough to carry the distance. But the courtyard was clean as a hound’s tooth. I thought about yelling but concluded this would be useless, too.

A large copper cable ran down the side of the building from the execution chamber and entered the ground a few feet from where I stood. I knew this was the ground wire for the electric chair.

I rushed back to the office for the hatchet that was kept in a wooden cabinet there. But one look at the clock told me it was too late. The time was now 10:18. Besides, I knew that cutting the ground cable wasn’t feasible. Such a drastic measure would endanger the lives of everybody in the execution chamber, and it almost certainly would not save Waike.

At about ten-thirty a clerk put the official death notice on my desk.

From “The Phone Call,” which appeared in the April 1964 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 166-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.


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