The recent Utah execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner via firing squad became national news, and led to inevitable editorializing pro and con the death penalty. Because Utah is the only state that allows for firing squad executions, Utah is presented, by those who oppose the death penalty, as a particularly benighted state, and the discredited doctrine of blood atonement usually gets attention. Blood atonement is, as Scott Card once put it, “a doctrine never taught in the Church, especially by Jedediah M. Grant.” But Gardner’s execution had, for me, a personal historical context unrelated to blood atonement. Only three Utahns have been executed via firing squad in the last 70 years. Gardner’s one; Gary Gilmore (of Executioner’s Song fame) was another. The third was a man named Donald Condit, who was executed in 1940 for murdering my grandfather.
Harold Arthur Thorne. My mother’s father. A traveling salesman, raising his family in Salt Lake. He had five children–four girls and one boy. My mother was the third in age–she was five when he was killed. Grandpa Harold was selling in Parowan Utah when he met Condit, who posed as a fellow salesman whose car had broken down. He gave Condit a ride back to Salt Lake; on the way, Condit pulled a gun on him, told him to pull the car over, to get out, shot him, beat his head in with a rock, stole the car, and headed north. In Salt Lake, he ran a red light, was pulled over by a cop, who wondered why Condit was driving a car registered to a Harold Thorne. Two days later, Condit confessed. We have some evidence suggesting that his confession was beaten out of him by Salt Lake cops. But he did it, we don’t doubt that, he led cops straight to the body. My mother’s earliest memories are of Condit’s trial. The prosecutors wanted the jury to see five small children whose Daddy had been killed, and so she and her siblings went to the trial every day. Condit was convicted of murder, and executed, as I said, by firing squad.
My grandmother, Lucile Thorne, was faced with the subsequent challenge of raising five small children by herself. She moved in with her mother, Mary Markham, known in the family as Grandma Mary, who took care of the children. I knew Grandma Mary a little. She died at 96, in 1970, when I was fourteen. She baked the best apple pie I’ve ever tasted, and she finished her last quilt a few weeks before her death.
As for Grandma Lucile, she went to work. She had taught school before getting married, and she went back to the classroom. Nights, she finished a master’s degree in library science, and later, a Ph. D., and she eventually was hired at BYU, where she taught for over twenty years. For fun, she acted in films and commercials and plays. She had a bit part in Mr. Krueger’s Christmas–she played the housekeeper, and got to have lunch one day with Jimmy Stewart. She was also in Take Down, a Kieth Merrill wrestling movie–she plays a batty old music teacher. She won Utah Mother of the Year one year. She was a remarkable woman.
I loved Grandma Lucile, loved her dearly. When I was a BYU student, I’d stop by her office, where she’d share with me from her contraband stash of Diet Coke. She loved BYU basketball, and got two season tickets, one for me and one for her. I’d drive, and help her with the stairs, and then she’d cheer herself hoarse. She hated it when people in front of her stood during games, and would whack offenders with her umbrella. “Sit the hell down,” she’d say: she believed the good Lord had put ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ in the English language for a reason, and used both words with style and imagination. She read everything I wrote, and marked ‘em up with her red pencil. Some grandmothers just say “oh, that’s lovely dear.” Not mine: with her, it was more “that’s a dangling participle, fix it.” She drank tea every morning of her life, and she was a temple worker for forty years. She’d go into the temple recommend interview, and the bishop would ask if she obeyed the Word of Wisdom. She’d say “all except for my morning tea.” And he’d sigh, and sign her recommend again. She was an awful cook: she’d invite me over for dinner, and she’d brown some hamburger, and dump in a can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti, and that was dinner. And once, while teaching at BYU, she discovered that her assistant made more money than she did. She asked the Dean about it, and he told her that her assistant made more because he was a man, supporting a family. She pointed out that she was a widow, with five children. He smiled and said something like ‘there you go, women’s libber.’ She came across the table, grabbed him by his tie, and shook her fist in his face, and told him she was getting a raise that afternoon or she’d sue BYU. She got her raise. I didn’t hear this story from Grandma Lucile. I got to know one of her colleagues, who told me about it. It was very much in character.
She was completely and utterly heroic, totally fearless, totally faithful, smart and kind and astonishingly perceptive. Every girl I dated, I took to see Granda Lucile. One dinner, and then she’d call me. She’d say “she’s a lovely girl, darling. I’m not sure she’s quite right for you, but she’s very sweet.” Then she met Annette, and this time it was, “I’m so glad you’ve finally found the right girl.” She knew way before I did.
And I can’t write about her.
I desperately want to. I’ve tried, many times. I’ve written two full-length plays and a short story, and I’ve started a novel. They don’t work. They’re not right. I can’t find it. I know her voice as well as I know my wife’s, and I can’t put it on paper.
None of us can. My Aunt Sally is a wonderful writer, a beautiful poet. Some of you probably know her: Sally Taylor. She’s never been able to write about her mother. Another aunt, Aunt Janice, is trained as a playwright, and had a terrific career as a Salt Lake playwright for years. Janice Dixon–some of you may remember her as well. She wrote a book on how to write one’s personal history, and it included some stuff about her mother, but that’s all she’s been able to do with it. The consensus best writer in our family is my mother’s only brother, Uncle Jim. Jim Thorne. He writes with a simple eloquence and beauty I wish I could someday even approach, but mostly in family letters; he hasn’t published much.
What’s interesting is the legacy of the murder, the legacy of Grandpa Harold’s death. My mother and her sisters all come from a generation of women who were taught that women shouldn’t work outside the home. But they all earned advanced degrees, and they all worked. My Mom’s pretty upfront about why. She says that women were told that they didn’t have to work, that their husbands would provide for them, and she and her sisters knew that that wasn’t always true. Anything could happen–you had to be prepared. The strangest legacy is Uncle Jim’s. His son, my cousin David, is an alcoholic, and one day twenty years ago, he was driving drunk, and lost control of his car and killed a family. He’s still in prison for it. My uncle, my wonderful, kind, brilliant, talented Uncle Jim, is the son of a murder victim, and father to a convicted murderer. He’s written about his son–he still can’t quite write about his father.
I never met Grandpa Harold, obviously. I have a distance and perspective on the event that other writers in our family don’t have. I should be able to write this. I can’t. I don’t know why.