Special Agent Tom Henderson asked, “Professor Beaty, did you have occasion to mail a package to Pee Wee Gaskins a month before Rudolf Tyner’s murder?”
Chapter 1 The Professor Meets the Mass Murderer “His was the smallest and firmest adult hand I had ever shaken.”
Anita answered our Myrtle Beach phone. I was in and out puttering around the yard with lawnmowers and car waxes. The kids were everywhere from the beach to the neighbor’s grapevine. When Mr. Bloom caught Frank and Christian stealing grapes, he ran them off. He told me should the thieves return he was calling the authorities. I managed to keep a straight face. I heard Anita say, “Grady, it’s nice to hear from you, too.” I stepped quickly into the kitchen. She held the phone high for me to take it. “It’s Grady Query,” she whispered. “Hey, man. It’s been awhile. How are you?” Grady Query and I had been neighbors in university housing. We completed graduate work at the same time. He became a lawyer practicing in Charleston, I an English teacher at Coastal Carolina University. After exchanging pleasantries my old friend cut to the chase. “Jim, I want you to join us in a project you won’t want to pass up. I just know you’re the man to help us.” He explained that he was representing Pee Wee Gaskins, trying to keep him out of the electric chair. I knew about the United States Supreme Court’s rulings that had blocked our state’s efforts to resume executions. The majority of South Carolina’s electorate enjoys the sizzle of the electric chair.
“My dad and I want you to write a book about Pee Wee’s life.” I remembered the media coverage that had stunned South Carolina at year’s end, 16975. Bodies had been dug up near Florence, and Pee Wee Gaskins overnight became the talk of every town. Television viewers, radio listeners and newspaper readers knew his name. Grady’s words “write a book” hit me hard. I had just completed and defended a dissertation. Any writing longer than a grocery list interested me not at all. “I’m flattered, but I’m not your man. I’m not a writer.” “Look, Beaty, talk it over with Anita; sleep on it, and I’ll call you first thing Monday morning, okay?” “Okay, thanks for calling.” Wow! Here I am on a warm, cheerful Friday afternoon looking forward to a sun-filled weekend with my family. Lazy, soft, crisp clouds hover beneath a baby-blue South Carolina sky. That canopy furnishes protection for all of us. Sunglasses barely filter the brightness of this Myrtle Beach day. Our house nestles under southern pines. The four oldest kids are on the beach a block away. Anita, the grape thieves and I will join them for an hour before the backyard cookout. Any interruption of this gentle chaos, I did not want. I wanted an excuse to say no to Grady. The thought of an undertaking like this was beyond my imagination. What would writing the life of this man mean? Would I have to meet him? What about Anita and the kids? What about my teaching? A decision by Monday morning seemed impossible. I had taught Truman Capote’s, In Cold Blood. I cherished its literary strength, but I minimized its gore. Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy and George Eliot and Harper Lee are my cups of tea. How could I involve myself and my family in a story like this one?
Anita, always observing, always aware, said, “Maybe we ought to talk with the kids. Want to call a family meeting?” “Let’s do that.” Family meetings bring howls of protest. “Oh no, not another family meeting,” and one of the little ones throws himself on the sofa like a wounded buck. Each time a meeting is called, at least two of the six fear being busted, because at least four of the six are always in some kind of trouble. This time, however, Anita called the meeting with everyone already seated at the picnic table. Too late to run, and no place to hide. And besides, six tummies were full of hamburgers and all the trimmings. Realizing that no one was in trouble, all six slumped into a relaxed mood. Elizabeth offered, “What do you know, a family meeting and nobody’s getting busted? It’s a miracle!” I explained Grady’s call. The oldest three, not surprisingly, knew about the murders as reported on television. Jim, Lyssa and Mark posed sensible questions. Mark simplified the issues, “Dad, write the book but don’t go near Pee Wee Gaskins.” Jim, Jr. asked, “If you had to visit him, would the two of you be alone?” I didn’t know the answers to these questions. “But I need to give Grady an answer.” Frank, wanted to know, “Does the final answer have to be Monday morning?” “I know Grady wants an answer now.” “Daddy,” Lyssa said, “I don’t want you to have anything to do with Pee Wee Gaskins. I vote no. Don’t you go near him!” “He’s locked up in prison, Lyssa! He’s not at the mall,” eight-year-old Christian could not hide his excitement. “Can I see him?” Elizabeth chided, “You are one silly little brat.”
Jim wanted closure, “Are we kids voting, and should the vote be unanimous?” “What’s unanimous?” Christian didn’t want anything to stand in the way. “Unanimous means every single person agrees, all yes or all no,” I said. Pensive Frank added, “This family agreeing; that’ll be the day.” Mark asked about royalties and movie rights. Everyone laughed: I the loudest. *
Pee Wee Gaskins casts a long shadow. Four decades after calling her brother “one silly little brat,” Elizabeth looks back at the memories. “Dad and Mom, I was thinking about titles for my memoir about your writing the book. Here are some contenders: Welcome to Murder Beach! Growing Up Is Murder Puberty with Pee Wee Killing Time in The Seventies “I want you to remember the time; yukky seventies, yukky Myrtle Beach. We lived in a rental house that we affectionately called Castle Dracula because the previous tenants had run a haunted house attraction on Ocean Boulevard of the same name, but more because of the horrendous colors of the rooms. It was surreal. I can still see the particularly depressing bright blue that was Frank and Christian’s room. “Jaws was at the Dunes Cinema, Olivia Newton John, Boston and Blondie were on the FM radio. If I wasn’t cutting school, at the mall or at a marathon sleepover at Sherrie’s house, I was locked in my room. Of course, I will not have to remind you or any other family member
that I was miserable, angry, a smart-ass, literal red-headed step-child - - convinced that I was possibly switched at birth. “You guys were really weird. Hippies when disco and punk were happening. It was not fun to try to blend in with the normal kids when your parents suddenly decide we will not conform and have a telephone. Remember that one? Your dad drops you off at Junior High on a motorcycle. So when you guys announced a family meeting that evening in the late seventies and asked us about the possibility of your writing a book about the scariest, most notorious mass murderer in South Carolina history, it got a lot weirder in the Castle. “I remember two things about that night. ‘We think Pee Wee has killed as many as a hundred people.’ and ‘Pee Wee escapes a lot.’” “So when you guys decided it was a good idea for Pee Wee’s son to come visit or whichever of the whacked out things that happened, I am sure my arms were folded, eyes rolled and my bedroom door slammed shut. “As the writing went on, and the dozens of collect calls from Pee Wee were answered by us all (you got pissed with me because I answered excitedly one time and said, ‘Hi Pee Wee’, and not Mr. Gaskins). I don’t think you had any idea that we were sneaking into your study on a dare and opening the scary drawer that contained the king daddy of horror - - files with autopsy photos. “Throughout the years we listened to audio tape cassettes of your interviews with Pee Wee. We speculated about how he made Christian’s devil/bloody-bull-horn hat. I learned about capital punishment, psychology of grandiosity, the difference between psychopathic and sociopathic criminal behavior and how Grady defended not for the murders, but from execution by electrocution, while dating my first boyfriend and learning to drive.
“We gathered around you like most kids to listen to a father tell a story but ours were of the true crime variety, leaving me morbidly curious as well as horrified. “I remember when I started to leak to my friends that you were writing the book on Pee Wee. I was fifteen. It changed everything. “Now at fifty-three, I see that that experience, like so many others that you guys gave us, made me a smarter, more interesting and entertaining person. So thanks mom and dad for the wild ride and for never being normal.” *
Anita and I talked into the wee hours weighing all the issues. My prayer just before the gift of sleep asked for peace and safety for my family, no matter what. At one minute past nine on Monday morning, I answered the kitchen phone. In the summer at our house, the phone rings all day long. I rarely, if ever, answer. Ten calls, one may be for me. This one was, and I knew it. “Mornin’, Jim.” “And good morning to you, Grady.” “I hope it’s a yes on writing Pee Wee’s story.” “I decided with the help of my family to take a stab at it.” “That’s good enough for me. My dad’ll be pleased.” I felt sure Grady would want us to meet in Charleston to get started. Although afraid, I was ready to begin. My hesitancy to write was lessening. I was ready to try to put words on the page. Rather than drive to Charleston to begin research, I had first to drive to Columbia, to be approved.
“Meet me at the penitentiary in Columbia Friday morning at eleven. Pee Wee wants to meet you.” I froze. “Pee Wee wants to meet me?” “That’s right. He actually has to approve you on two points: one, as the writer of his story and two, as a potential visitor. Pee Wee passes on you first: then the prison people.” Grady chuckled. A good ten seconds passed before I spoke. I asked if the prison was still located down by the Congaree River. “Right there. Been there a hundred years. Parking’s easy. We like to say the joint is easy to get in, hard to get out.” Another chuckle. Grady was having a rare, lively moment. Just before eleven on Friday I drove into the parking lot of (CCI), Central Correctional Institution. Grady, standing beside his Mercedes, glanced at his watch. We shook hands, and he congratulated my being on time. I was pleased that he had arrived ahead of me at this dismal site. The chain-linked fence around the huge parking lot looked brand new. The circular barbed wire atop the fence seemed familiar. The walls of the structure were light green. The bars on the windows were light green. The roofed porch at the entrance was light green. We approached the first door under the porch, light green. The supporting columns were light green. A guard greeted the attorney. “Good mornin’, Mr. Query. Pee Wee’s been asking about you.” “Thank you, Joe. Shake hands with Jim Beaty. He’ll be visiting Pee Wee. Make sure everybody treats him right. He’s a professor.” “Will do, Mr. Query. Anybody who visits Pee Wee gets special attention,” said the guard looking at me. “Nice to meet you, professor.”
Was Gaskins some kind of celebrity? Why would his visitors be special? What is his status? As Joe, Grady and I approached a second all-iron-bar door that was light green, Grady asked me, “How’re you doing?” He knew. He was being courteous. When Joe closed that second door behind us, a chill ran up my spine. The hair on my neck stood. That sound. That finality of iron closing on iron. I had heard it before. Suddenly, a flash. The circular barbedwire atop the fences. The light green paint on every surface. It hit me. Albert, it was Albert who a lifetime ago had walked me through those doors. I was seven. My mother’s father, Colonel James Stephen Wilson was warden of this very place. Decades ago I had walked this hall. To me, my Grandpapa Wilson was no more warden-like than Santa Claus. Albert was a prison trusty who chauffeured my grandfather to and from work in a shiny new Packard. Whenever Papa wanted a visit from me, his seven-year old grandson, that Packard and its driver took me safely to my Papa’s office in the penitentiary. I overheard my mother ask him if it was safe for a prisoner to drive me to the prison. My grandpapa was taken aback. “Why Sadie, I trust Albert with my life and the lives of all the rest of you. In fact, Albert is more trustworthy than the better part of that bunch downtown at the state capital. You relax; little Jimmy is perfectly safe with my Albert.” To my knowledge, there was no more discussion of the matter except my daddy’s punctuating the whole affair with, “I believe it’s just one more example of wasting taxpayer dollars.” My mother didn’t stop my visits to the “pen.” Grandpapa Wilson did. One weekday noon when he was in the staff lunchroom, two trusties asked to speak with him. His secretary referred the two to Captain Saunders in a nearby office. The two men entered the captain’s office and riddled his chest before turning their weapons on themselves. My visits ceased.
As an adult, married and with a family, I had occasion to need a birth certificate. I was born in the Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte, so I wrote to the records office of Mecklenburg County. Within a week the birth certificate arrived showing the correct time, date, month, and year. Reading the document Anita said, “This is not you. Look! It says ‘James Stephen Beaty.’” My name for three decades had appeared everywhere else as “James Wilson Beaty.” After months of bureaucratic circumlocution I discovered the problem. My mother, while still in the hospital, named me James Stephen Beaty for her father. My father, however, gave all other parties my name as James Wilson Beaty. My father all his days claimed that his father-in-law had never paid him for work that he had completed. When asked how much Papa Wilson owed him for the work, my daddy with a twinkle answered, “Five dollars.” Evidently, he didn’t want to name his brand-new son for a man who didn’t pay his debts. When Albert took me to visit Colonel Wilson, I had walked through those very doors. Down a short hall on the left appeared a visitors’ area with six square tables, four chairs each. One person was sitting in that room. Grady exclaimed, “Pee Wee!” The tiny man, with no handcuffs or ankle chains, hustled to his feet and walked toward us. I noted a heavy limp that caused his left shoulder to drop with each step of his left foot. The high voice answered, “Good mornin’, good mornin’, Mr. Query.” The two men shook hands as the guard excused himself. “Pee Wee, I want you to meet Dr. Jim Beaty. I‘ve told you about him.” As we shook hands I felt the size of his hand and the strength of his grip. His was the smallest and firmest adult hand I had ever shaken.” “Nice to meet you, nice to meet you, Mr. Jim.” From that day until the last time I saw him, Pee Wee, with only one memorable exception, called me, “Mr. Jim.” Never Dr. Beaty,