The Legacy of Jack Wheeler

john-p-wheeler-iii-hhs-62I’ve been thinking a lot, of late, about John Parsons Wheeler III. Wheeler was a driving force for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, one of the most visited sites in all of America. His murder, almost four years ago, received international attention. His death has been ruled a homicide, by blunt force trauma, a category that covers assaults by an object, like a baseball bat, or a fist. Other than this ruling, however, we seem no closer to an answer now than we did when his body was first discovered.

The mystery is perplexing. But I’ve been thinking about Wheeler for this and other reasons. A West Point grad, Wheeler served as a soldier in Vietnam. He was a driving force behind the Veterans Memorial. He worked as chairman and CEO of Mother’s Against Drunk Driving, helping to push them to prominence; and as President of the Deafness Research Foundation, where he battled to make tests for deafness in infants standard. He pushed to create effective, modernized schools in Vietnam, through his leadership of the Vietnam Children’s Fund, and sought reconciliation with the country where he served and many of his classmates died in war.

A spiritual man, Wheeler also spoke to friends and family at times about the notion of “grace.” In theology, grace is usually described as a kind of gift that God bestows upon us, not because we deserve it but simply because he desires us to have it.

In the years after Wheeler succeeded in efforts to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial—“The Wall”—built, stories cropped up of veterans finding each other there after years without contact. Others might hear these stories and think of them as fortunate coincidences. What were the chances that former war buddies, from different parts of the country, would choose to turn up there on the same day and time? Wheeler referred to these coincidences as examples of “grace.”

I remember reading, many years ago, in an interview I can’t seem to find now, the rock singer Bono’s lament that we willingly share intimate details of our lives to friends over dinner, yet if someone mentions the word “grace” everyone will feel embarrassed. Notions of spirit, of religious belief, aren’t just personal. They also seem to risk triggering interpersonal versions of the larger cultural war in play between high-profile atheists and believers. In this milieu, the very idea of something like grace becomes ghettoized. However, I think that Wheeler left behind a sense of grace that lives on after his murder and sits apart from the mystery surrounding his death. The Wall he helped create was a great source of healing for the entire country after the Vietnam War. MADD likely saved many millions of lives with its campaign to stop drunk driving. Many adults can hear, today, became of the work he did with the Deafness Research Foundation. And schools he helped imagine and fundraise for, in Vietnam, are still being built today. His murder remains unsolved. Yet the work he did still touches people, most of whom probably don’t know of the role he played in bettering their lives.

In theological terms, I don’t suppose that the sort of afterlife evident in the story of Jack Wheeler qualifies as grace. However, I think of it as related—a gift people have received, from a man they can’t see.

Here Comes The Night Time

Many of my favorite songs sound like a prayer, and Emmylou Harris has a voice that seems to reach forever up, rendering her the perfect messenger between God and the rest of us. This track, “Where Will I Be,” stems from her collaboration with producer-songwriter Daniel Lanois, who joins her here. I recommend playing this one after the sun sets.

Stranger Beside Her

RuleI tend to read a lot of true crime stories, in magazines like Texas Monthly, Philadelphia (where I’m writer at large), Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and every other mainstream publication where they appear. Calvin Trillin is best known as a humorist, but his book Killings is just as good as his lighter material. Plus, the book’s mere existence seems to confirm the fact that, if you’re writing nonfiction for any length of time, you might specialize in food, music, art, architecture or politics, but I suspect you’ll at least give some thought to trying your hand at a good murder story.

I’ve written a lot of true crime pieces. I count this story, of a young Philadelphia girl killed execution style in the basement of her home, as one of the most moving, for me, that I’ve done. I recently wrote this story for Philadelphia, about one of the most perplexing unsolved missing persons cases in recent American history. And I once even talked over a glass of wine with the alleged head of the Philadelphia mob. I even wrote a story that I believe explains the average city homicide—the how and why that petty disputes explode into mortal anger.

I’ll be writing a lot more true crime stories in the future, and I’ve just begun reading some full-length true crime books. You can’t get very far in that pursuit without coming across Ann Rule, a former detective magazine writer who has published about 30 titles. Rule’s personal story is compelling. She and her husband separated. She raised four children as a single mom, supporting herself with freelance detective magazine articles before rising to national prominence with The Stranger Beside Me. Rule, it turned out, worked at a suicide prevention hotline with Ted Bundy in the years before he became known as a serial killer.

The conventions of true crime writing, the foreshadowing and sometimes hyper-dramatic pacing, are often derided, like the staples of any genre. But I turned the pages as fast as I could. The book is transfixing, not least because the narrative forces you to confront a time when the name “Ted Bundy” was not already synonymous with murder. By the end, however, the story was so bleak, so much blood was shed, that I felt somehow unclean. For a few days, as images from Bundy’s murders rose, unbidden, into my mind, I wished I could unlearn the grisly details. I suppose that is a mark of how well Rule put the story across. That said, I think one of the most profitable reasons to read Stranger is to see the author who emerges over its length.

The newest paperback features all the updates Rule has written, for the many editions of Stranger published over the years. To her credit, she seems never to have been numbed by her proximity to Bundy or the many homicides she’s written about over the years. She seems unsure of how to process all this violence. And she has the added challenge of trying to understand how she sat so close to Bundy, talked to him about personal issues over glasses of wine, without ever realizing that he was, all the while, pursuing dark, psychopathic fantasies. In each update, she seems to land on some new way of viewing the story. At one point she even admits that at the time she first published Stranger—a best seller among best sellers—she didn’t fully understand Bundy or psychopathology.

What’s most remarkable is that she retains the ability to see Bundy with compassion, saying his lack of any real morality probably always made him feel like he was “from another planet”—a facet of his personality that must have caused him both to feel a tremendous sense of alienation and loneliness, and also enabled him to look at his victims in the cold-blooded way he did. I admire her for her ability to retain some feeling for him, yet finally identify him, I think, in starkly accurate terms, as a man who was somehow not fully human. That is, if qualities like compassion and empathy are what enable us to cooperate and form the sorts of communities and societies that propagate the human race, Bundy was not one of us—not fit to live free in a civilized world. The Rule who emerges, at the end of this process, seems a little worse for the wear—but clear eyed and ready to keep working.

Mystery Solved

This “strange creature” video went viral last week. A Singapore fisherman reeled in a catch that seemed part-octopus and all crazy. He videotaped the thing, hoping someone could tell him what he landed. For a short while, the media seemed to be crediting the wrong angler with the find and the creature really was portrayed as a mystery, maybe even some new species. The “alien creature” description was also popular. Now the smart money is betting the animal is a rare, but well-understood cousin of the starfish, dubbed the “basket star.”

Here’s a link to a video of a basket star as it appears in its natural habitat. I think what you’ll find is that the basket star is pretty creepy wherever you find it but seems somehow less startling and more recognizable in the water. It’s seeing the creature out of context, in the open air, that really caused all the hub-bub. Either way, check out the icky video that is closing in on its first million YouTube views.

Where I Live Now

IMG_2075And I quote: “Smokey, a large gray 18-month old house cat, escaped his home at 219 N. Locust St. September 30 and wound up having quite an adventure.”

That, folks, is the lead of an article that ran on the front page, above the fold, of the community where I live now.

Each morning, I wake up and read the online versions of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, a necessary addiction of my role as Writer at Large for Philadelphia Magazine. Stories from Philly run the gamut, but rap sheet material—allegations and investigations—dominate the news diet.

These days, each Thursday, I also run out to a local coffee shop, grab a cup, and buy a copy—for 35-cents—of the weekly Lititz Record Express. This last week, on Oct. 9, the aforementioned story on Smokey, a large gray house cat, really caught my eye. Smokey, you may already have guessed, climbed up into a tree, and that’s when the drama really began.

Now, it’s true, I probably qualify as somewhat jaded. Years of covering often violent stories will do that to a guy. But I haven’t lost the capacity to whistle through my teeth at items like these two, fresh from Philly, about an alleged plot to steal a deceased woman’s house, and a recent accusation of gay bashing. And as I marveled at Smokey’s plight—the Fire Department here has stopped rescuing cats from trees, calling the practice “inordinately dangerous”— I realized I was about to learn something about myself: Just how does a city reporter like me react to a story about Smokey?

The item served a couple of purposes for me. It helped me geo-locate myself here, in Lititz, where stories on the family cat claim the most precious real estate—page one, above the fold—in the local paper. My wife and I made this move for all the things families usually move for—a little more real estate and good schools for the kids. Smokey forced me to reflect on something else, too. Cats, and dogs, and all manner of cute, furry things, move newspapers. And if you’ve read thus far, you’re probably hoping I’ll reveal what happened to Smokey.

Well, let me tell you, he was in that tree for three days, and then… . Wait. I’m not going to steal the Lititz Record‘s thunder. If you want to know what happened to Smokey, you’ll have to click here.


Boy With A Coin

This is one of Sam Beam’s finer moments, a surreal, spiritual stomp to get your week off to a questing start.


EandJonBeachOur boys are learning to count. Jack, several times, sang out the numbers one through ten, in order, just last month. Eli imitated him but didn’t get farther than five.

They sometimes falter. This morning, I assembled their little toy cars in a line in front of them and counted one through four.

Jack responded by pointing at the cars and saying “Two, three, five!”

He seemed very proud of himself, and I didn’t tell him he was wrong. Instead, I actually found myself electrified, for a moment, with a sense of possibility. In the moment, my first thought was, “What if he’s right?”

A moment later, I laughed out loud.

I love my boys so much that I see a sense of genius in them all of the time.

Eli’s strange affection for wires—he started moving toward all electrical devices from the moment he could propel himself at all, and he has never stopped—makes me think one day he will be a very successful electrician or engineer.

When Jack picks up a pair of spoons, holds them just like drum sticks and starts banging on his high chair tray, I think perhaps he will be a musician.

I didn’t know till this morning, however, that my love for them is so great, my affection so boundless, that I will go wherever they point me. After I started laughing at Jack’s “two, three, five” and my own reaction to it, I still found myself wondering, whenever my attention drifted, if we have failed to unlock the secrets of the universe because we don’t count correctly: It’s not one, two, three. It’s two, three, five. What might the implications be?

These thoughts, of course, make no sense. But there they were—funny little gifts from the magic world of my toddler boys, where so little has been learned that everything is new and the boundaries of the world are yet to bind us.


THE DAD FILES: Smile For the Camera


Jack (foreground) smiles for the camera.

In the run-up to having twins, I spent about half my time thinking about the adventure my wife and I were starting. I spent the rest worrying.
I bear the great misfortune, and blessing, of hyper-vigilance.
The upside is that when something goes wrong, I am rarely caught entirely unaware. By the time anything goes wrong I’ve usually figured out all the painful possibilities. The downside, which occurs more frequently, is that I worry about events that haven’t happened yet and, usually, won’t.       Meditation, which I learned while writing Fringe-ology, helped tremendously. But watching my wife’s belly swell with our twins overwhelmed me to the point that focusing on my breath, or observing my thoughts and letting them pass away, often proved impossible.

In the weeks and months before the children were born, I worried that they might have some birth defect. My wife and I were both around 40 years old, increasing the chances something would go wrong. I feared becoming responsible for a baby that might never grow to be responsible for itself, and worried that my anxiety somehow reflected a small heart, a diminished capacity for fatherhood.

I also spent a lot of time worrying about the changes in my own life. I love my work, writing and reporting, and feared giving up my ability to drop everything and get on a train or plane to go conduct interviews. I’ve always held that being a journalist is a rare privilege, and the thought of giving up some of the adventures the job provides scared me. These thoughts, too, suggested that I might not be cut out for this—that having kids might turn out to be the biggest mistake of my life.

I’ve been reflecting on this period of time a lot lately because Lisa and I were fortunate enough to have two healthy boys, fraternal twins we named Jack and Eli. They turned two years old at the end of July, and their vocabularies seem to expand every week.

Most of their speech is primitive. “Daddy—milk,” means “Give me milk.”
But recently, I learned just how much they understand beyond what they can say.

Because the boys are fraternal twins, they do display strikingly different personalities. Eli, for instance, is pretty much oblivious to cameras. From the beginning, however, Jack stopped whatever he was doing as soon as he saw us pull out our smart phones. The result is that a lot of wonderful moments escape into memory. The time Jack walked with one of my shoes on one foot and one of my wife’s slippers on the other? Gone forever. The time he sat on the couch with his stuffed monkey encircled in one arm and a toy car balanced on his head. That’s gone, too.

For parents, these are the every day joys we want to capture on film, to look at—and cry—after our sons leave for college. But Jack prevented us from taking so many pictures that I took to referring to the sweetest things our children do as “Bigfoot sightings.”

Whatever pictures we did get were too blurry to discern, as Jack waved his little hands furiously in front of his face.

“No picture!” he shouted. “No picture!”

Finally, I was so frustrated enough to try something radical: I talked to him about it.

One morning, as I sat with my sons and ate some eggs I’d fried up for the three of us, I started the conversation.

“Jack,” I said. “Do you know how you always stop mom and dad from taking pictures?”

“Yes,” he said, still chewing.

“Do you know why mom and dad want to take pictures of you and Eli?”

“Yesssss!” he said again.

“I’m not sure you do,” I said.

I paused for a moment and checked to see that both boys were listening.
“Mom and dad take pictures,” I continued, “because we love you and Eli so much. And we think you’re so cute that we want to be able to look at as many pictures of you as we can, forever. Some day you’ll ask to see them, too, so we want them for you and for us because we love you that much.”

“Yessss,” Jack said.

“So Jack,” I said, “will you please let us take pictures of you now?”

“Yesss,” he said again.

Intellectually, I wasn’t sure if the conversation worked. He is on the early side of two, after all. But emotionally, in what passed between my gaze and his, I felt a shared understanding click into place. I leaned over and sealed the deal with a kiss I planted on top of his head. Then I kissed Eli. A few minutes later, I started taking pictures. For the first time ever, Jack looked right into the camera and smiled.

A few days later, Lisa told me the conversation really worked. She showed me a bunch of pictures she shot in which, she said, Jack “cheesed for the camera”—smiling as broadly as he could.

This talk with Jack taught me a lot. Our boys are two now. They are past infancy. They understand a lot of what we’re saying, and as parents we need to respect that.

That talk also filled with me with that sense of satisfaction so peculiar to parenthood—when a small, private victory fills me with an almost otherworldly sense of accomplishment. This particular little expression of love and understanding showed me how far I’ve traveled in a very short time.

Before Eli and Jack were born, I worried mostly about escaping them—about finding time to carry on my career, about finding some way to bear up under the weight of caring for them till they’d grown. Two years later, I no longer worry about getting away. The time apart comes when it’s necessary. And when I am out of town, I feel a small ache. I wish I could reach out and touch them, could see them and confirm their happiness. I still worry. But now I worry about deepening our relationship, about making sure they know I bear the responsibility of their care gladly. I can see the toddlers they are, the infants they were and the adults they’ll become. And I worry about preserving our memories.

Troubled Man

John Mellencamp has quietly set about building a later period career that eclipses his early work. I haven’t had the chance to listen to his new album yet but the single is arresting—his voice haggard and worn, the lyrics conjuring a mythically bleak, malevolent figure, “I won’t do anything but hurt you if I can.”
Such sobering material isn’t normally what we put on repeat. Yet “Troubled Man” has such depth to it that there seems little choice but play it again and again, trying to sort through the various levels of mourning, beauty and acceptance Mellencamp—a painter—has layered into the song.

The Misery Parade

DrKermitGosnellKermit Gosnell won’t ever go away. A longtime Philadelphia abortion provider, Gosnell was convicted in 2013 of inducing the live birth of three viable babies—past the legal gestational age for abortion—and killing them in his West Philadelphia medical office.

The details of the case against Gosnell, reported in the most blood-soaked fashion in a thick Grand Jury report, hardly even matter at this stage. What counts are the images left behind. Here in Pennsylvania, the Republican Party is currently trying to tie Gosnell to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf. Never mind that Wolf, who I profiled for Philadelphia Magazine, is pro choice but bears no direct links to any aspect of the case. Opponents mailed out fliers with pictures of Wolf and Gosnell, asking: “Will Pro-abortion Tom Wolf take us back?”

This morning, an Associated Press report on the flier doesn’t mention that prosecutors had enough evidence to charge Gosnell with seven murders. Instead, the article quotes from the Grand Jury report, where prosecutors estimated that he killed “hundreds” of babies by inducing their live birth and snipping their necks with scissors.

I understand how the distinction between the initial report, the charges and the actual convictions seems unimportant now. The images raised at Gosnell’s trial, of large, healthy looking babies, past 24 weeks gestation, with gashes in their necks from his surgical scissors, were that powerful. Few convicts, of any kind, commit crimes so horrifying that television news reporters advise parents to usher children from the room before commencing. Gosnell chased kids from the room for months as his case wound through the courts. Besides, for a man to stab three newborns suggests he’d be willing to stab hundreds more. And maybe he did.

I attended Gosnell’s trial and remain the only reporter to have interviewed him after his conviction. He called me from prison, more nights than not, for many weeks. Even from jail, he conveyed such an elevated sense of himself that it was easy to see how he started playing God. He criticized the prosecutors, his own defense attorney and the judicial system. He portrayed himself as a victim of the culture wars. What became clear to me is that, long before he was arrested, he declared war, too. He believed so ardently in abortion rights that he ignored the law prohibiting abortion after 24 weeks whenever he thought it necessary. He also casually mistreated the women in his care, making neglect a part of his business model. Most notoriously, he instructed unlicensed staff to dispense strong doses of narcotics and anesthetics to his abortion patients. At trial, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of one woman, Karnamaya Mongar, who was killed by the drugs administered during her abortion. Her daughter testified in court, and maintained her dignity even as she cried and cried and cried.

I wrote an e-single about Gosnell, in 2013, and usually I’d have re-read it once or twice by now. The crazy-making nature of writing long, nonfiction pieces is that we can always torture ourselves by looking back at past work to see what we’d do differently today. But thus far, I just can’t bring myself to pick that story up again. The Gosnell trial was a parade of human misery, and in some respects it doesn’t really seem to be over.

His name is now a touchstone in the culture wars, and I’d expect his story to be recycled in various ways for a long, long time. But more importantly, the images projected at trial just don’t fade.