DEATH OF A HERO by John Wooden
This is dedicated to my mother, Ms. Helen B. Wooden, and the many mothers who motivated and inspired the children of today and tomorrow to be real men and women.
Thank you Ms. Helen – loving and missing you!
DEATH OF A HERO
Silver strands as silky as a newborn’s hair. Forehead wrinkles that speak of wisdom and knowledge. Every word that is released, I latch on to . . . teach me about my past, my ancestors, my history. Tell me about the struggles of a people. I need to hear about the assassination of a leader in Mississippi, a blown up church in Birmingham killing four little girls, and another assassination in Memphis. Tell me, Wise One . . . please tell me about me!
“Our top story tonight is the death of eighty-six-year old, civil rights activist and leader, Margaret ‘Maggie’ Wayburne. Mrs. Wayburne was found this afternoon dead in her home, possibly from a heart attack. The police are not ruling out foul play. Apparently Mrs. Wayburne’s home was broken into and police think she walked in on her burglars, which possibly led to her death.”
When I heard the report, I cried as if I was five-years-old again and my father had just told me about my mother’s death. I loved my moms, but the only thing I could remember about her was her always yelling and screaming at me. Somehow I thought I was the reason she’d died. I carried that thought with me for sixteen years. Although my father and sister persistently tried to convince me otherwise, it was no use. In my mind, I was the reason my mother was dead. It was my albatross to carry, the proverbial monkey on my back that I could not get off. That was until that night—that dreaded night that I became a man.
Eventually they would have found me. I’d left my gun. Actually she’d taken my gun and made me promise things I had never promised before. I walked into the Thirty-third Precinct and stated, “I am the one who broke into Mrs. Wayburne’s house.”
Immediately three black officers manhandled me. They didn’t book me. Instead they handcuffed me and dragged me into a room for questioning. All I could think about was the eighty-six-year old, caramel cream complexioned woman named Maggie Wayburne. Though she was dead, I knew she was with me and she would forever be with me from this day forward.
I felt her spirit as the fists of Officer Thornton steadily punched my face. With every hit, I smiled, incensing him more. He didn’t know why I was smiling. I was sure he thought I was smiling because of disrespect toward him, or worse, toward the death of Mrs. Wayburne. But in my mind, I knew she was in heaven smiling at me. Thus, the smile was for the old woman who had saved my life. Yes, I knew she was smiling. Smiling because I’d turned myself in and I was taking the first step to becoming a man.
I didn’t know how long the short, stout officer beat on me. I remembered his huge arms and big fists having a field day on my face and torso. I recalled looking up at the camera and seeing the cord not plugged in the outlet. I smiled again. The next punch was to my mouth and I fell backwards in my chair.
I was rescued by a tall, slender black man probably thirty minutes after I’d arrived in the interrogation room. When he walked in, he was appalled. I could barely see the shock and disbelief on his face. My left eye was almost closed from the blows I’d received from the three officers. My knees hurt from being dragged on the floor, and I also had a splitting headache. I could not blame the officers. A legend was dead, and although I’d turned myself in, I was the one who in many ways had killed her.
The detective surprised me. He identified himself as Detective Albert Hilliard and he ordered another officer to take the names, badge numbers and statements of the three officers who had beaten me. His first order of business was not to question me about Mrs. Wayburne, which I found peculiar. Instead he questioned me about the three black officers who had attacked me. He informed me that I was a victim of police brutality and he wanted to know if I was pressing charges. I dismissed the issue. I just wanted to turn myself in and get this over with. He reached in his coat pocket and placed a mini-recorder on the table, read me my rights and proceeded to interrogate me.
“Mr. Stone, did you break into Mrs. Wayburne’s home last night?”
“Yes, I did,” I answered. I could see Detective Hilliard was expecting more, but he asked a question and I gave him a straightforward, simple answer.
“Why did you break into her home?”
“To steal what valuables she might have had.” Once again Detective Hilliard had an antsy expression on his face, expecting something more.
“Did you know Mrs. Wayburne lived there?”
“No, I did not.” I think the detective finally got what he wanted. This was his breakthrough. He leaned forward in his seat and looked me in the eye. My right eye was sore, but open. My left eye was still closed and aching. But I was oblivious to pain. Even with the knowledge of going to jail, I still had Mrs. Wayburne on my mind.
“You go by Mac, right?” I nodded. It was an unexpected question. Everyone called me Mac, short for Mackenzie. Mackenzie Nathaniel Stone. The name given to me by my mother, the first woman I’d killed.
“Tell me, Mac, what happened?” Detective Hilliard asked. “I mean, what time did you break in, did you think anyone was home, or what?”
I didn’t hesitate to answer. “I broke in about two in the morning and no, I didn’t think anyone was home. If I thought someone was there, I wouldn’t have broken in. As far as what happened, Mrs. Wayburne is what happened.”
A puzzling look came over Detective Hilliard’s face. It was a smile, and I was dumbfounded. I had already gotten my butt kicked from three cops, who were pissed I was responsible for killing one of the greatest civil rights leaders of our time. I knew it was too good to be true. I thought Detective Hilliard was about to kick my butt again.
“Well, Mac, let’s try this another way. Tell me what transpired from the time you broke in until the time you left.”
This time I hesitated before I answered. I knew what had happened, but I didn’t know if he would believe me. I looked at the tape recorder and realized I was in a good position. Then the same thought that had never left my mind made me smile, the thought of a sweet woman named Maggie Wayburne watching over me.
“Detective, I broke in through the backdoor, breaking the pane of the kitchen door. I unlocked the door, had two black duffel bags and a flashlight with me, and in my coat pocket I had a Smith and Wesson .38 pistol.”
I stopped to catch my breath and Detective Hilliard poured me a glass of water from the pitcher in the room. I appreciated his patience with me. I knew deep inside he probably wanted to kill me.
“What did you do next?” he asked.
“Believe me or not, when I walked in I noticed someone had left all of the eyes on the stove on, but no flames, so the house smelled of gas. The first thing I did was cut off the eyes on the stove.” I thought Detective Hilliard would interrupt me then, but he didn’t, so I continued.
“Next I walked around the first floor of the house just looking before I started to put stuff in my bags. Then a light came on and I reached for my gun and turned around. Standing at the bottom of the staircase was Mrs. Wayburne. She startled me, and as soon as I saw her, I immediately knew who she was.”
“Did she say anything?”
“Yeah, she said, ‘How are you doing, young man. May I help you?’ I was so lost and confused that I didn’t know what to say. So I apologized to her and told her I didn’t know it was her house.” I stopped again and took another swallow of water. I smiled inside at what Mrs. Wayburne said next. “She asked me, ‘Does it make a difference whether I live here or someone else? You know someone lives here and that someone is not you, so what you are doing is wrong.’ She was right, and believe it or not, detective, I felt so damn small and the only thing I could do was apologize again and ask her for her forgiveness. And then the darnedest thing happened.”
Detective Hilliard was once again smiling and I felt even more awkward than afraid. But I continued on with my story. “She told me to come and have tea with her. So we went into the kitchen, sat at the table and had ice cold tea. She wanted hot tea, but I told her I didn’t think it was a good idea with the smell of gas still in the house. I asked her why did she have all of the eyes on and she told me the house was very drafty and blew them out sometimes. I actually volunteered to come over and take a look at them for her.”
We both smiled at the comment. Then it dawned on me. Detective Hilliard probably knew Mrs. Wayburne. The thought stayed with me, so I asked the question.
“Before I go on, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” he replied.
“Do you know Mrs. Wayburne personally?”
“Yes, I do,” he began. “I have known her all of my life. We used to live directly across the street from her when I was young and she was my sixth and ninth grade teacher. She also taught me how to play the piano.”
We looked at each other. I knew the man was hurting inside, but for some reason I knew he believed my story. I didn’t know how I knew I just had a good feeling that he believed me.
“We sat and drank tea, and she chastised me in a way I have never been chastised before. It was subtle, but very effective. She told me about our history, her history and in a lot of ways about my history. I told her about how I felt when my mother died and why I did what I did. She didn’t know me, but she explained me to me. Detective Hilliard, I went there to rob her of her valuables, but instead she robbed me. She took away the guilt I had been feeling ever since my mother died. And she did it by teaching me about the history of black folks. She did it by thoroughly explaining to me what it meant to be a Freedom Rider, to march on the Nation’s Capital, to be sprayed by high powered water hoses, to be attacked by dogs, to be beaten for sitting at a lunch counter, to be denied the right to drink at a public fountain or ride in the front of the bus. She taught me, detective. For three hours we talked and talked and talked.”
I didn’t know if anything I had said made sense. Detective Hilliard seemed content with what came out of my mouth. He asked me to continue, and I did. I told him everything we talked about, from Mrs. Wayburne telling me how she met her beloved husband, also a civil rights activist, Joe Wayburne, to them fighting the injustices of racism and discrimination, to her not being able to have children. Prior to me leaving, we prayed and Mrs. Wayburne asked me to leave my gun and turn my life around. She told me I no longer needed it. She stated that she had faith in me and she knew I would make a difference in the lives of others.
When I finished making my statement, Detective Hilliard gave me a letter from Mrs. Maggie Wayburne. He told me to read it. He turned off the tape recorder and stood to leave.
Before he departed the room, he said, “Mac, you didn’t kill Mrs. Wayburne. She died in her sleep. Knowing Maggie Wayburne like I do, I think she was lonely and tired of living. I think she wanted to be with her loved ones. You probably saved her from committing suicide, and you gave her something before she died.”
He paused and I noticed Detective Hilliard’s eyes were watery. I couldn’t help thinking that was the way of Mrs. Wayburne—always touching the hearts of those who graced her presence.
We looked each other squarely in the eye, man to man. And I, for the first time in my life, truly felt like a man.
“You made her remember her purpose in life,” Detective Hilliard said. “She died knowing she had saved another life. She died making a difference. She died with a quiet heart.”
He turned to leave the interrogation room, and then he stopped. “This is Maggie Wayburne’s last act on Earth . . . I hope you make it an everlasting one.” Then he just looked at me. I wondered what he was thinking. I would never know. “After you read the letter, come out and I will take you to the hospital,” he said as he left the room.
I was there by myself with a letter in my hand. A letter I was afraid to open, but I did.
Dear Albert Hilliard,
A young man will come into the police department soon and claim he is responsible for my death. But don’t believe him, Albert. He is a nice young man who was lost, but I know that he is now found. He made my last night on Earth a memorable one. We talked about things I haven’t talked about in a long time—too long to be truthful. Time has finally caught up with me, and my Joe and the Almighty want me to come home. So, Albert, you have always been good to me and have always put up with me. Even as a young whippersnapper, you always made time for me. I want you to know that recently life has not been that grand, but all of that changed in one night, my last night. Young Mackenzie Stone saved my life, Albert. Many will not understand that, but I know you do. For me, please return the favor and save his life. Give him one more chance and I know he will be better for it. Sometimes we lose our way in life and we need someone to remind us how good God is and how great He can be. Thank you, Albert, for granting an old lady one last wish. And when you do my eulogy, let everyone know, I died happy!
That was ten years ago.
“Today I am Mackenzie N. Stone, youth counselor and community activist. As much as I can, I tell the story of Mrs. Margaret ‘Maggie’ Wayburne’s last day on Earth, and how she had saved a life and died happy.”