At Close Range? Yeah, closer than I ever could have imagined
It’s a memory I revisit around this time every year.
It’s about life in a very small town, and the kids - as well as some of the adults - who lived there.
It’s about getting out, and going home again, and realizing you’re not a kid anymore.
I was fresh out of college and journalism school, and had once again survived another cross-country car trek as I put Boulder, Colo., in the rear-view mirror and headed east on I-70.
By the way, that’s something I recommend to all young people when I speak to schools or classes. Everybody should drive across the country at least once. I’ve done it several times.
But this last time I did it with a sense of dread.
Because I was headed home, and knew I likely was not going back.
Home for me meant Oxford, Pa., a tiny town just about a good spit from the Maryland line, and with a mindset that likely was more Dixie than I cared to admit.
As we always said about it: Live there for awhile and you get to know the place pretty well.
It’s true. When I grew up there in the ‘60s, you knew everybody by name. And they knew you. And, most likely, what you were doing. That was not always an advantage.
So it was with somewhat of a sense of dread that I was headed east. And not just because I faced the daunting task of driving across Kansas once again.
When I walked into the old house that Saturday afternoon, there was a note on the kitchen table.
“Call Steve McIver at the Coatesville Record.”
Turns out having everybody know who you are had its advantages.
I had gone to high school with Steve, though he was a few years older than I was.
I had littered newspapers up and down the East Coast with my resume.
One landed at The Record. It would be my first real job in the newspaper racket. I’ve never done anything else.
What I have done is learn a lot of things, including one very important one I learned very early in this career.
My first job at the Record was as what we refer to in the business as a “correspondent.” Sounds pretty important. In reality, it’s a freelancer. You got paid by the story. I was covering high school sports in the afternoon, and municipal meetings at night.
Watergate, it was not.
Until one very hot, muggy morning in August of 1978.
There had been an ambush shooting.
And it had taken place just outside my hometown.
I was about to be thrust into a national story.
But much more than that, I was about to learn a very tough lesson about this business.
Bruce Johnston Jr. was the son of the notorious leader of the Johnston Brothers gang. The family was legendary in that part of southern Chester County. They specialized in stealing farm equipment.
But they had been getting more brazen, and more brutal in clamping down on anyone who might talk about the family’s “business.”
Bruce Johnston Jr. and his girlfriend had just returned from a day at HersheyPark when they pulled into the driveway of her family’s home in Nottingham, just outside of town.
That’s when two men emerged from the cornfield across the street, rushed the car and opened fire. Both Bruce Jr. and his girlfriend had been hit. It was an attempt to silence “Little Bruce,” who had began talking to the federal investigators probing his father’s gang. What turned Bruce Jr. against his dad? He had been in jail after getting arrested during one of the heists pulled by him and some of his young pals, dubbed the “Kiddie Gang.” His dad offered to take his girlfriend to see Bruce Jr. in prison. Instead he gave her some whiskey, took her to a motel, and sexually assaulted her.
Bruce Jr. was furious. He decided to get back at his dad by talking to the FBI.
Bruce Sr. couldn’t have that. He put a contract out on his son. The two men who rushed out of that cornfield, guns blazing? That would Bruce Jr.’s uncles, David and Norman Johnston. The family business had to be protected.
The girl died. Since I basically lived in town, I was asked to check things out.
That’s when reality slapped me in the face, when I realized this was not like most jobs.
The girl’s name was Robin Miller.
Or, as we used to call her, “Rockin’ Robin.”
I knew her. I knew her sisters. I knew her mother.
Like I said, it was a small town. I am guessing at some point I probably gave her a ride into town, since she and her friends were always hitchhiking to get where they wanted to go. We all did. It was a different time. A different world. Some of those stories I did back then remain among the most difficult I have ever done. Trying to separate your personal life from your job is something every journalist struggles with.
It continues to this day.
I had to explain carefully to some pretty close friends that I was now doing my job, that what they were saying was on the record, and might end up in the paper.
I was reminded of all this because of a show I caught this week on Reelz TV. It was a documentary about infamous gangs, and this particular show featured the Johnston Brothers gang.
My friend Bruce Mowday, who covered the story extensively for the Daily Local News in West Chester, and who wrote a book on the Johnstons, was featured.
As the feds closed in on the Johnstons, they got more desperate - and violent - in their attempts to silence witnesses. Several members of the “Kiddie Gang” had received subpoenas to appear before a federal grand jury in Philadelphia. Bruce St. wanted to be sure they never got that opportunity.
Back then, one of the highlights of the summer was the annual Oxford Fireman’s Carnival. It is believe three of those young guys, really just a few years younger than I was, were picked up right there on the grounds under the ruse that they had another job to pull. They were led out to a remote field in Chadds Ford, where they were shot in the back of the head and buried in makeshift graves.
I often wonder if they had walked by me at the carnival before whisked off to an ugly death.
Eventually all three brothers - Bruce Sr., David and Norman - were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in jail. Both Bruce St. and David have since died. Norman again gained notoriety a few years back when he escaped from jail. He was on the lam for more than a week before he was caught.
Eventually they made a movie out of the Johnstons’ story. It was called ‘At Close Range,’ and starred Christopher Walken as Bruce Johnston Sr. and Sean Penn as Bruce Jr. Mary Stuart Masterson played Robin Miller. She actually looks a lot like Robin in the movie.
In the trailer, they referred to life in a dead-end town. It always brings a smile, followed by a tear. When I was a kid, all I ever wanted to do was get the hell out of that little town.
Oxford has changed a lot. That was 40 years ago.
These days, I would give anything to go back to that simple life.
But it will always be home.
And at this time every year, I will always remember, and think about the lessons of life, and a life in journalism.
RIP Robin Miller.