Peggy Keener: Despair was his middle name

Published 6:25 pm Friday, August 19, 2022

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Twelve-year-old Addie felt out of place at his sister’s teenage party even though he was in his own home. More than anything, he felt like an oddball. He simply didn’t fit in and most of all didn’t want to be there.

That is when one of the older boys noticed him staring gloomily out the window. “Hey, Addie,” he cried in an effort to cheer him up. “Last semester, I learned the manual of arms!”

Addie’s ears perked up. Wasn’t the manual of arms an army drill? Now that was something that truly interested Addie.

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Seeing the dejected Addie perk up, the older boy went on to say, “Would you like to see me do it? All I need is a rifle.”

It just so happened that Addie’s dad had a .22 rifle stored down the hall in the coat closet. Would that do, Addie asked?

Well, yes, indeed, it would the boy agreed. So, Addie got the gun and handed it to the boy who went on to give a quick, but impressive, demonstration of the manual of arms military drill.

What followed is where the story turned. Things got muddled. Some say that after the boy finished, Addie wanted to try to imitate the drill. That was one version of the events. Another account came from an eyewitness who swore that Addie took the gun and pointed it directly at one of the girls. Then pulled the trigger.

The gun was loaded and Ruth Merwin fell to the floor … dead. Addie dropped the gun. His face was a mask of horror as he saw blood pour out of Ruth’s head onto the dining room floor. Terror-struck, Addie turned and ran up the stairs to the shelter of his bedroom.

That is where the story got even more twisted, with a quirky, unexpected outcome. To be sure, the aftermath of the incident was as unanticipated as was the tragic incident. For you see, in the aftermath no one in Addie’s family mentioned the accident. No one. Ever.

Three weeks later, an aggrieved Addie wrote a letter to his father in which he referred to the Merwin family. But, incongruously, no where in that letter was there a trace of remorse. Not even the slightest hint that anything had happened. Moreover, there was no mention of Addie’s silent, but very real, suffering.

Many years passed while Addie buried the terrible secret deep and then deeper inside his psyche, speaking of it to no one.

Some folks who knew him as a child theorized that because of the tragic accident, the adult Addie would devote his life to “causes.” That the shattering childhood experience would forevermore shape his personality. One thing was clear, though, the tragedy left Addie a haunted man who for the rest of his life was ruled by self-doubt and profound feelings of unworthiness.

Years later when his peers bestowed honors upon him, Addie would accept them with sincere reluctance. And it was not unusual for one to overhear him saying, “I would have preferred to hear those words uttered for a stronger, a wiser, a better man than myself.”

Nonetheless, the honors kept coming. And with each one Addie was plagued all over again by melancholy feelings. Upon one occasion he wrote to an old friend stating, “It is very late and I am propped up in bed, desolate, weary, harassed and sad.”

That one hugely unfortunate, utterly unintended gunshot would haunt Addie for his entire life. Surreptitiously, he continued to live with his secret buried deeply within him. Even his wife knew nothing until years into their marriage when she … much to her alarm … learned of it from one of her husband’s childhood friends.

As an adult, Addie was regarded as a gentle man, quiet and mild-mannered. Those who knew him could never have guessed at the violence that had taken place so many years before. That had taken place in Allie’s very hands! In an ironic contrast, his peaceful, withdrawn image continued to place him in a revered position, earning him respect and admiration from all who knew him. Only he knew the cloud of guilt under which he lived; the unworthiness he felt at receiving such undeserved adulation.

Praise culminated in 1952 when a self-effacing Addie received the Democratic presidential nomination for President of the United States. You would then know him by his given name, Adlai. Adlai Stevenson.