(Reverse Spoiler Alert: Please read first The Letter, Living Large and Gravity)
By Casey Gauntt
Late December, 1970
My memory of the next couple of weeks is mostly shrouded in fog punctuated with a few lucid moments of predominantly pain and grief laced with surrealism. The two rocks of my life flew in the next day from California—my grandfather Vern Case and his son Stan. My dad’s oldest sister, Imogene, and her husband Stu Hagestad came from Bakersfield and stayed with us. A sad bit of irony here. Five years earlier it was my father who flew from Chicago’s O’Hare airport to LAX to meet Imogene’s and Stu’s flight from Australia. Their twelve year old daughter Jana had been killed in a horse jumping accident the day before.
Reverend Tom Hinkin (back row), Casey Gauntt (front row, 3rd from left)
First Presbyterian Church Confirmation, 1964
There was a memorial service for my father on Christmas Eve day at the First Presbyterian Church of Itasca. Reverend Tom Hinkin, a big bear of a man with a red bushy flattop presided over the small group of us gathered in the late afternoon. I don’t think there were more than twenty-five people there—maybe two pews full. There was no casket, photographs, programs or any other evidence of my father present in the church. A few hours later the church would be packed with joyful and hopeful families celebrating with the good Reverend the eve before the anniversary of the birth of their savior, Jesus Christ. By then we were long gone.
After the service we came back to our house—only family, no one else. There was no wake; no celebration of life. The house was not filled with flowers, cards or friends stopping by with food. My father’s suicide was not feted. The men—I was unofficially promoted by the tribe two days before—were huddled shoulder to shoulder in the faux red leather banquette around a small square table in our smaller kitchen. We drank scotch and some of us smoked cigarettes. Stan had quit a few years ago but granted himself special dispensation on this occasion. Uncle Stan is 21 years my senior but I’ve always thought of him closer—more like an older brother. We talked about my dad, of course, and some funny stories were told about him. I told the one about our fishing trip to Panama when he threw his fancy new camera overboard thinking it was his beer. Was that really only one year ago? Stan told the one about the time he and Dad took a drilling rig from Chicago to someplace in Indiana to drill some test holes. The rig got stuck in the mud and it took them two days to get the thing out. There were others. It is amazing to me how that one light moment continues to this day to stand out in my mind. I suppose that’s because it was the only one.
Christmas Day was pathetically sad. It was grey and cold. There was no color. My older brother Grover, thirteen year old sister Laura and our mother sat in our living room, quiet and grim-faced—the same place that for so many years was filled with excitement, joy and laughter as we tore into our stockings and gifts. We silently opened a few gifts and mumbled thanks. My mother didn’t put out the ones she bought for our father. I didn’t have any presents for anyone. My custom had always been, as was my dad’s, to do Christmas shopping the day before. There were many Christmas Eve days when Dad, Grover and I drove into Chicago for our workout and lunch at the Chicago Athletic Club and then to Marshall Fields to do our shopping with about an hour to spare before the store closed. One Christmas Eve I bought toe-nail clippers for my mom. After she opened my gift she began to cry. That same year I bought for my dad a little trophy with a plastic silver colored statue of Michelangelo’s David and a plaque that said “World’s Best Dad.” He seemed to like his gift.
After we opened the last of them, my mother handed me an envelope. She said it had come in the mail the day before. It was a Case Foundation envelope addressed to me and postmarked December 21, Roselle, Illinois. It was the same style of envelope and postmark that contained the letter my father wrote to me in Coalwood, West Virginia that summer of 1968. I immediately thought, ‘Oh fuck! Is this The Note?!’ Inside was a brief handwritten letter from my father. It appeared to have been written hastily; not with his customary steady hand. Although I threw the letter away a couple of days later, I’ll never forget his words.
“Casey- I sold some of your Hecla Mining shares. Please buy something for your mother and Laura.”
Inside the envelope were three $100 bills. I passed the letter to my mother and brother. Two lines. Those were my father’s last words to us—to me.
I recently shared this story with a good friend and she objectively observed “That was your father’s suicide note.” I guess I never wanted to admit that, but of course she’s right. Later that day I wrote my mother this letter and enclosed the $300. I don’t remember doing it. I found the letter in my mother’s safe deposit box after she passed away in 2012.
“December 25, 1970
Merry Christmas. Please accept this from me and use it when you go shopping in Los Angeles to get something you really like. Think of it as a gift certificate.
I love you very, very much.
Four days after his death my mother had already decided to move to California.
In the first thirty eight years following our father’s death, my sister and I spoke maybe a handful of words to one another about him. One year after Jimmy died, Laura wrote me this.
I don’t know if I ever shared the ‘before’ story with you, but I remember very well lying on my bed listening to my current favorite song, little Michael Jackson’s I’ll Be There. Dad came to the doorway of my room and said, ‘You know I love you, don’t you?‘ I looked up at him and said ‘Of course I do, Daddy’, and that was our goodbye…he left for Panama the next day.
In this video, Casey talks about how he and his family dealt with his father’s death after his passing.
A couple of days after Christmas Uncle Stan, my brother and I attended the Du Page County Coroner’s official inquest into my father’s death. We were directed to a small, cramped, windowless, room with auditorium-style seating—not unlike an operating theatre at a medical school. We looked down from our padded seats upon a long grey metal table in the center of the grey tiled floor below below. A string of bare fluorescent lights hung from the cheeseboard board ceiling. Seated at the table were three men similarly dressed in dark suits. We watched them monotonously pull name plates from their briefcases and place them on the table in front of them. This was the inquest committee. Seated at a smaller grey table perpendicular to the committee’s was Dr. Samuel K. Lewis, the Du Page County Coroner. It was only the seven of us in this box.
One of the committee members announced they were ready to hear the matter of Grover C. Gauntt, Jr., Deceased and, glancing our way, acknowledged the presence of us family members. Dr. Lewis remained seated and described in cold, precise, medical jargon the facts and his findings. He detailed where and when the deceased’s body was found. He held up the plastic bag containing the snub nose .38 caliber handgun found next to the subject’s body. He described when and where the gun was purchased; a gun store in Chicago a couple of days before the deceased was pronounced dead. He didn’t say when the subject had returned from Panama; or whether or not the subject had actually been in Panama. He introduced a ballistics report that confirmed the bullet extracted from the deceased’s skull was in fact fired from the gun in the plastic bag, and a fingerprints report identified the prints on the gun as matching those of the subject.
Dr. Lewis stood up and placed a poster board on an easel upon which a nondescript head of a human male had been stenciled. He summarized the autopsy report and, using a retractable pointer, illustrated where the gun had been pointed, the approximate distance of the gun from the temple of the subject when fired, and the circuitous path the bullet took before coming to a stop inside the subject’s brain. He said no note from the subject was found at the scene. I didn’t proffer the letter I’d received on Christmas Day from the subject. He introduced the report prepared by one of the Du Page County detectives who had come to the house and extracted from his interview with my mother that the subject was having financial problems. There were no photographs of the subject presented at the hearing; his body wasn’t there. Dr. Lewis finished his report with the conclusion that the subject died from a hemorrhage in the brain as a consequence of a gunshot wound.
No one asked “Why?” “What kind of a man was he?” “Was he a good father?” or “Boys, how are you doing with this tragedy?” The three dark suits simply acknowledged their unanimous acceptance of the finding of “suicide by self-inflicted gunshot” and authorized Dr. Lewis to so certify on the death certificate. They put their nameplates back in their briefcases, stood up and left the room. It was all over within seven minutes.
A couple of days after the inquest a moving company representative showed up at the house to prepare an estimate of the cost to move my mother and sister to Springville, California to stay with her folks until she could find a new home in California. I did not realize until recently that we did not own our house in Itasca. Case Foundation did, and since the company had recently been sold by the Case family, I suppose it would have been only a matter of time until the company would have reluctantly asked my mother to move out so they could sell it—they needed the dough. However at the time, and even without that knowledge, it did not strike me as the least bit odd or impetuous that my mother would want to leave Itasca so quickly. As for me, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
This is from a letter my mother wrote her folks, Vern and Henritetta, on December 29, 1970. She was waiting for the moving company to show up to do the estimate and then she would take Laura into Chicago to get her braces checked.
“I’m planning to have the house packed and moved out on the 15th [January] and then take an early Saturday plane to Los Angeles. Of course, as you remember, it was fifteen years ago today that we moved into this house. I remember well pulling out from your house on a very snowy day and wondering if I’d make it up the hill on Route 19 from Roselle. I just wanted to let you know how much I love you, and thank you for all the helping hands along the way—not just now, but for security at home when I was growing up. This was such a big lack in Grover’s life. He knew of our love, and was strong in many ways, but always seemed to be searching. We’ll talk much later, but I just wanted you to know we’re fine. For the children, each one will accept their father’s death a little differently, but I think perhaps we gave them much security, love and discipline, and they too will have full and happy lives.”
I don’t remember a lot of tears being shed. Our mother certainly seemed to have it together. My brother told me, thirty eight years later, he’s never cried about our father’s death—not once. Laura was our father’s princess, and he was her favorite person in the whole world. They adored each other. I respected my father, I admired him but, like my brother, I also feared him. I suppose I should have been worried about Laura but, honestly, I was so consumed with my own pain I simply had no room for anyone else’s.
Our dad’s father, Grover Cleveland Gauntt, Sr., Granddaddy, died in El Paso, Texas on December 31, 1970— New Year’s Eve. “Acute massive myocardial infarction” according to the copy of the death certificate I got from El Paso County in 2009. He was 82 years old. At the time I’d been told Grandaddy was in a coma and never knew that his son had died nine days before him. Either way, we never heard from him. He and his son had not spoken for quite some time. I remember thinking at the time how odd they died so close in time when they were anything but close. Otherwise, his death was irrelevant to me.
A couple of days after New Year’s our family went our separate ways. There was no party— no ringing in the New Year— only trepidation of what was ahead for each of us. I returned to USC for another week of classes before final exams. My brother went back to Wharton to finish his MBA. My mother packed up the house and left for Springville where Laura would finish the eighth grade. All of us cleared out from Itasca in a matter of three weeks from his death. We were moving on to pursue our “full and happy lives.”
We weren’t all so “connected” back then—no cell-phones, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter or email blasts. Within 24 hours of Jimmy’s death, it seemed as though the whole world knew about it. Not so in 1970. The only fraternity brother I called before I returned to USC was Stan Lent with whom I was sharing a seedy apartment a block from the Delt House. I told Stan and only one other fraternity brother, Ron Guss, that my father had killed himself. I imagine word probably got around. A few asked me about my Christmas vacation and I told them my father died. To those bold enough to ask the dreaded follow up question, “How?” I replied, “heart attack.” Well, his heart did stop.I thought it would be easier for them if I said heart attack—they could understand that. They wouldn’t understand suicide; that would freak them out. Of course that was complete bullshit. I didn’t understand it; I was scared out of my mind and had no fucking idea how I was going to deal with it. So I lied. I lied about it for a long time. I was good at that.
A bunch of my brothers took me out for my twenty-first birthday on January 13. We went to the 901 Club, a popular bar on campus and, not wanting to break tradition, I got hammered playing foosball and drinking Pinch scotch. I awoke late the next morning with a king-size hangover and, with only minutes to spare, made it to my marketing class final. School was actually a comfortable escape for me at the time. I took refuge in the structure and routine of classes and the solitude of studying at my traditional haunts at the law library and philosophy school building. And it was something I was good at. I made straight A’s that semester. Then slowly, yet steadily, the wheels began to come off.
The next semester I took a psychology class called Personality Disorders. Big mistake. As I read the text and listened to the lectures I convinced myself I had almost every disorder there was: paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, anxiety, depression, self defeating. My hands were perpetually wet. I had trouble sleeping. I would sit in class and all I could think about was “My father killed himself.” I became convinced there would not be a minute that would go by for the rest of my life when I would not think about it. I had this endless loop of conversation with myself: “Why? Why did he do it? How bad must it get before you decide this is the only alternative left? How did he get to the point where he convinced himself this was the right decision? Could I do that? Could I take my own life? What’s my breaking point? My dad was a tough guy. He was a highly decorated Army officer in World War II. Am I as tough as him? I don’t think so.”
I wrote my term paper for the Disorders class on sibling rivalry. All of the articles and textbooks said the same thing: “Brothers who are less than three years apart in age tend to be competitive and fight a lot.” Oh, really? That’s fucking brilliant. Those scholars should have checked with me first and I could have saved them a lot of time and trouble.
A big wig from a major insurance company in Los Angeles invited me to lunch a couple of months after I got back to school. He was a friend of my mother’s from Chicago but he didn’t really know my dad. He expressed his condolences and then asked me what my plans were after college. I said I was thinking about law school. He proceeded to tell me why he thought that was a bad idea and I should go to work in the business world for awhile before making a decision on graduate school. As he was talking, I got more and more angry. This guy, who I didn’t know, was giving me advice as though he was my father. “You’re not my father! I’m not going to become neutered by some fucking insurance company!” I yelled to myself. His advice may have been well intentioned, and maybe even good, but he was not my dad. My father killed himself. And then I started to cry, hard, in the middle of our lunch. I was embarrassed and became even more angry at this asshole, this stranger, for making me cry. I bolted from the restaurant and never heard from him again.
I called my brother a few times back in Philadelphia. I needed to hear his voice, but we were both struggling and suffering too much to be of any help to one another. Our lines to the pier had been severed and we were adrift. Another one of my low points was when I called my ex-high school girlfriend— the one who had rightfully dumped me when I went to work in Coalwood. She was in college somewhere in Colorado. I don’t remember where or how I got her number—maybe she had sent me a card. I was nervous, anxious and more than a little desperate. I’m sure I freaked her out. She tried to be nice, but I could tell she couldn’t get off the phone fast enough. The call ended awkwardly and that was the last time we had any contact.
I went to the student aid office on campus and applied for the social security death benefits we children of the deceased were entitled to. That was the only help I got. I didn’t get counseling or any other psychiatric help. I don’t count my Personality Disorders class. My dad hadn’t gotten any emotional help — and neither did my mother or brother after his death — big mistakes all around. I think my sister may have seen someone when she was in Springville.
I was in free-fall—all of us were—and desperately looking for a handhold. Some of us would fall harder than others.