By Kim Curtis
In this excerpt from her memoir-in-progress, Hit, Kim Curtis talks about an indelible experience early in her career as a journalist.
If Phoenix gave me my first taste of the seedy side of life, it was South Carolina that really got me hooked on my new career. That’s where I got a job after my internship in Phoenix ended. I was hired to replace the Associated Press crime reporter at the Columbia bureau, and this time I had an entire state to cover.
South Carolina was a bit of a backwater, however, so I wanted to make a name for myself and move up and out of there as soon as possible. So, I immediately took on the murders, the rapes, the child molestations – nothing was too gory or grisly for me. I enjoyed the dichotomy of it all: me, a down-to-earth, Midwestern blonde, interviewing cops and crooks.
I remember my first Ku Klux Klan rally. It was in Spartanburg, a 90-minute drive from Columbia. What I saw on that humid summer day was exactly what you’d expect to see at a KKK rally – white robes and hoods, Confederate flags flapping proudly, monster pickup trucks and lots and lots of white folks. I was troubled to see a sizeable number of children. In South Carolina, Southern pride was often engrained with racism. Somehow, you couldn’t have one without the other. That day, I felt relieved to be white – and even more relieved to be blonde and blue-eyed – as I stood on the sidewalk and watched.
While I was still trying to keep my jaw from dropping to the ground, an attractive 40-something man sidled up to me. He was tall, with salt-and-pepper hair, and dressed in casual clothes: jeans and a tucked-in checked shirt. No boots, no baseball cap – not at all “rednecky.” He said hello and smiled. I smiled back. We started chatting about books. Maybe he’d seen my notebook.
“Where you from,” he asked with only a hint of an accent.
“Milwaukee,” I said. We talked about the decline of the Upper Midwestern urban economies, the diminishing working class, the fall of unions. He reminded me of a college English professor – smart, articulate, and friendly without being pushy or flirty. I had no reason to believe he was anything more than a curious bystander, taking a break from his office job to watch the crazies exercising their civil rights.
“How do you like the parade,” he asked, still smiling.
I chuckled, then replied, “I’m working. I’m a reporter.”
Without changing his expression, without changing his tone, he began telling me about how “we” were losing “our” country to the mud people.
I was stunned. “Mud people” was a racist term used to describe people of mixed race, and it was one of this crowd’s biggest fears. When he started elaborating, I started listening. When he started making sense, I scared myself.
At that point, I politely disengaged and walked away, but I’d experienced an important revelation – I needed to worry less about the racists who marched in white hoods and more about “regular people” who could begin to convince me their opinions made sense.
What really established me in my career, though, were the executions. And the first one changed my way of looking at the world.
I started work late that day, heading into the bureau around 6 p.m. I was running late because I couldn’t figure out what to wear. How should a reporter dress when covering a man’s execution? I eventually settled on a plaid tweed skirt that hung slightly above my knees, a blue sleeveless sweater and a matching brown tweed jacket. I wore black tights and black flats with rubber soles.
When I arrived at the office, I gathered background material about the man scheduled to die. I read the Corrections Department’s press release about how he spent his last day—who visited, whom he wanted as witnesses to his execution. The press release also reported his last meal. On this, his last day, details that would have seemed utterly mundane on any other day took on a certain profundity. Hearty, Mom’s-home-cooking-type Southern food. Fried chicken. Sweet potato pie. Corn-on-the-cob. Sweet tea. Anything they wanted. Pizza. Steak. Shrimp and grits. I found this disgusting and refused to include the inmate’s last meal in my stories. I don’t imagine that anyone noticed my silent protest.
About 10 p.m., I drove my Honda station wagon to Broad River Correctional Institution, far from downtown, the Capitol, the governor’s mansion. I flashed my press pass at the gate. The guards joked with me, ignoring the tight knots of protesters and supporters outside the gatehouse, and then let me through.
I parked my car in the prison lot and made my way to the press room, which had phones and computer jacks, so I set up my laptop, organized my notebook and pens, and checked my watch. No cell phones were allowed into the death chamber. I could only take in one notebook and my two pens, all of which I tucked into my jacket pockets.
Five reporters would witness the execution. The Associated Press always had a seat at these things, and the other four were chosen by lottery. The five of us were loaded into a van and driven to the building where the executions took place, about two miles from the entrance. It was a dark and winding road. The entire prison was on lockdown. I remember the silence and the dark and the van’s heater blasting onto my face. No one spoke. Unusual for reporters.
When we entered the building, we signed our names on a witness list and again on the death certificate before we were ushered into the viewing chamber. A female TV reporter wearing heels click-clacked down the quiet hallway. Embarrassing. The witness room looked like the ones in movies: three rows of plastic chairs. I took a seat in the second row near the end so as to have a clear view of the victim’s family. There was no talking allowed, and no eating, reading or gum-chewing.
Shortly before midnight, a guard slid open the white curtain that covered the glass partition. We got a view of the chamber. It resembled a hospital room. The condemned man was stretched out on a gurney and strapped down at the legs, waist, chest, and arms. Only his head could move. He had been given Valium—his choice—just a few hours earlier. IVs were attached to his left arm and he was hooked up to heart monitoring machines mounted on the wall behind his head. Underneath, we were told, he wore a t-shirt and a diaper.
In the chamber were two uniformed guards—death chamber duty rotated among a small group of volunteers—a physician and a Corrections official dressed in a jacket and tie. The official read the death decree at a small podium. His amplified voice was piped into the witness room. “The state of South Carolina is carrying out the sentence of death imposed in the name of its people.”
The man in the suit read the murderer’s final statement. He said he was sorry. He said he believed in God’s forgiveness. He said he loved his family.
When the machine that sent the chemicals into the man’s body was switched on, his neck tightened. I could see the veins popping out. Then his eyes opened wide and his chest heaved. I found it a challenge to keep myself from throwing up. I scribbled useless notes in my pad. As he died, the man’s face turned gray. I had never seen anyone die before and I had no idea death could be so subtle. For several long minutes, the man in the suit and the physician stood by his side looking uncomfortable. Then the physician stepped forward to check for a pulse before pronouncing him dead.
It was the first of many such nights for me at Broad River. My sixth execution was no easier than the first, but my skin was thicker by then, and I kept my emotions wrapped up tight. I knew I was being tested. I was young and inexperienced and female, and my editor was trying to break me. I refused to give him the pleasure. I never uttered a single complaint. When my co-workers urged me to ask him to assign the next execution—there was always a next execution—to someone else, I refused. I acted like it didn’t bother me. At the prison, they started calling me Execution Girl.
I saw five lethal injections and one electrocution. All men. The electrocution was easier because I didn’t have to see the man’s face. His head was covered with a black sack. A stocky form strapped to an ancient chair. He had the IQ of a fourth grader. He believed the electric chair was built from the wood of Jesus’ cross. He called it the True Blue Oak. He was crazy. No one cared.
I swore I’d never forget how covering those executions made me feel. Now I can’t remember the faces of those men, or their names or their crimes. I was one of a handful of human beings allowed—no, required, for career survival—to witness their deaths and I can’t even remember who they were. That fact disgusts me.
Here’s what I do remember: those men’s deaths made me feel acutely alive. After being shuttled back to the press room, I called my office, filed my story, and answered questions from other reporters. Then I said goodbye to the guards at the front gate and drove home with the windows rolled all the way down, scarcely noticing what the weather was, blasting the stereo as loud as I could to drown out my sobs.
Kim Curtis works in the tech industry where plain, old-fashioned writers are known as content strategists. She’s working on “Hit: A Memoir” about her harsh transition from crime reporter to crime victim after a boyfriend beats her up in a bar. She’s now happily single and living in San Francisco with her cat, Arthur, her healthiest relationship ever.
Copyright 2016 Kim Curtis. All Rights Reserved.