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Crime Scene Photo

By Bob Cowser Jr.

Greenfield, Tennessee, a farm and factory town of twenty-two hundred in the state’s rural northwest corner, has never been more than a place between places, one in a long list of towns to be passed through along kudzu-choked U.S. Highway 45 on the way south to Jackson or Memphis. More than a century ago now a conductor on a southbound Illinois Central Gulf train offered the town its name, noting the fields of winter wheat still green late in the year.

It was in fact the railroad, and not the nearby Mississippi River, which was the prime mover in the delta land where I grew up. My slightly larger hometown of Martin, ten miles north up Highway 45, took its name from tobacco plantation owner Colonel William Martin who donated land for the railroad bed. Engineer Casey Jones lived 50 miles south in Jackson, Tennessee at the time of his legendary 1903 wreck, his modest house there now a museum. The mosquitoes blamed for 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic which felled 400 Martin residents and killed 52 (victims were quarantined post mortem in their own cemetery) arrived from New Orleans in Illinois Central boxcars.

On September 2, 1979, two members of the Weakley County rescue squad found the raped and murdered body of eight year-old Cary Ann Medlin in one of the community’s namesake green fields, not far from the Illinois Central tracks. Cary had gone on a bike ride with her little brother twenty hours earlier, gotten into a stranger’s Gran Torino and disappeared. By the time they found her tiny body atop a trampled swath of soybean plants just off Bean Switch Road, a notorious Lover’s Lane, the corpse had begun to turn in the late summer heat.

Cary Medlin had been in my first grade class at the Martin Elementary School. Her stepfather worked in those days on the assembly line at the Goodyear tire plant in Union City, her mother as a nurse at a Jackson hospital, and before moving to Greenfield in the summer of ‘79 the family had lived for a time in Martin. Another place between places.

I remember hearing news of her murder and running to find my first grade yearbook, hoping to fix her school days photo in my mind so I wouldn’t lose it. But the abduction and murder did not interrupt my childhood in the way you might imagine. I was as sad as a nine year-old boy could be about the business I suppose, but Cary had violated that cardinal rule of childhood about talking to strangers, and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation had Robert Glen Coe in custody just three days later.

It wasn’t until twenty-one years later, long after I’d left Tennessee, after Martin and Greenfield had became only places in my mind and that Lover’s Lane a Memory Lane that I began to consider the murder’s place in a childhood which I now see as violent in so many other ways. As the state of Tennessee prepared to execute Coe for the Medlin murder (its first execution in forty years), I began to understand Bean Switch Road as a rutted track in memory which might run between me and many people I loved and respected, separating me from them. It seems at times to run through the heart of me, cleaving it in two.

That first grade photo of Cary appeared over and over in the news in the months leading up to the Coe execution, along with another I found printed years before in the Nashville Tennessean and now reprinted as the newspaper re-capped the story: a shot of those rescue workers bent over the soybean plants, long-haired and t-shirted, hunting the girl’s body. The latter photo didn’t chill me so much as fascinate me. I sensed with a kind of strange excitement how the photo was an emblem of my childhood—the unmistakable heat, those men, something awful hidden just out of sight.

Of course this story isn’t news anymore. Both Medlin and Coe are as dead as they could be—Coe for almost five years at this writing, Cary Ann for nearly a quarter century. But it’s not history either. After all, something has drawn you here, reader—you want to know what it is the searchers seek among the soybean plants. The tiny body, yes, but something more. And now these paragraphs lie before you like stands of trees, a deep forest of wonder and darkness whose mystery beckons.

 
Bob Cowser Jr.'s essays and reviews have appeared widely in American literary magazines. His first book, DREAM SEASON: A Professor Joins America’s Oldest Semi-Pro Football Team was a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice and was listed among the Chronicle of Higher Education's best-ever college sports books. His second book, SCOREKEEPING, a collection of coming-of-age essays, will be published in 2006 by the University of South Carolina Press. "Crime Scene Photo" is the introduction to his third book, GREEN FIELDS, a work in progress. A native of rural west Tennessee, he holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska and is associate professor of English at St. Lawrence University. Read more about his work at www.bobcowser.com.

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