By the time I was five, I could read on a third-grade level. That’s how I was able to first learn the fascinating story of the Depression’s Bonnie and Clyde.
Mama and I were checking out at a sizeable hometown store called Dixie City, which was the local forerunner to Dollar General. It was cheaper-priced merchandise which meager-living folks, like us, needed and appreciated. The cashier was ringing us up, Mama had her pocket book poised, holding her billfold, her fingers already touching the dollar bills she’d count out — Mama or Daddy never used a credit card one time in their lives — and I, always an obedient child filled with wonder, was clutching the edge of the counter, peering over it.
As children — who don’t have videogame or phone in hand — tend to do, I looked up at the ceiling, over at the big plate-glass windows with sale items written across them and then behind me.
That’s when I spotted it.
The “Death Car of Bonnie and Clyde.”
I didn’t know what a “death car” was and I didn’t know who Bonnie and Clyde were but I was immediately interested in an old car that had that many holes in.
“Mama.” I tugged on her dress. “Can I go over there?”
She glanced over to the dark beige Ford. Here’s one thing I will be forever grateful to Mama for: She indulged my curiosity. She was unruffled by the cheating, drinking country songs I played on my little stereo or what could be considered a morbid interest in murder cases — that started when Life magazine featured the photos of the nurses who had been killed by Richard Speck — or a car like Bonnie and Clyde’s.
The car was roped off in a corner of the store (you gotta love the P.T. Barnum aspect of a discount store in the rural South displaying a famous criminal car) and there was a cardboard sign with the details: how they had been among the most wanted criminals when they were ambushed and killed by the law in that car. They were shot over a hundred times. I was so fascinated that I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Finally, Mama, toting a brown bag in each arm, urged me along.
I followed her out into the slightly cool spring night, stumbling over my feet as I looked back through the large glass windows. Eyes still affixed to the car, I climbed in the backseat. I did not stop looking until we had pulled out of the parking lot and was too far to see.
Decades later, when PBS presented a documentary on Bonnie and Clyde, I understood that I was not the only person who was captivated by these murderous criminals. Tens of thousands of people stood in line at the funeral home to view the corpses.
I never forgot the impact of seeing that car. Over the years, it has occurred to me that that evening at Dixie City was my first secular nudge toward the world of storytelling. The first nudges had come from Sunday School stories.
Ten years ago, I wanted to see the car again. I tracked it down to a casino in Primm, Nevada, so when I was going from a Los Angeles business meeting to meet up with girlfriends in Las Vegas, I decided to rent a car and drive so I could see it.
Yes, I was excited. So excited that I drove a good bit out of my way to get to the casino.
Casinos all smell the same — cigarettes, soiled money and cold air conditioning.
“Where is the Bonnie and Clyde car?” I asked the doorman, inhaling the soiled air.
“You just missed it. It left yesterday. It’s traveling on exhibition.”
Wherever it goes, it couldn’t possibly display in a more important place than Dixie City.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.