And Did You See Him Smile?

I read about my friend Ron Freeman in the paper last week. There he was there smiling out at us on CBS news and looking real fine. Ron always wanted to be famous.

It’s no wonder fame was so important to him. To hear Ron tell it, his father spent half his life telling him how unimportant he was and how he’d never amount to anything. He once told me that the most important thing in his entire life was for him to do something that would make the whole country sit up and take notice. He even admitted that the only reason he ever went to college was to become a lawyer and run for office and eventually become president.

That dream didn’t make, however. When he was in college he and some friends took off up to Gatlinburg to go skiing and on their way home Sunday night they hit another car. Ron was fine, but two of his friends died and the mother and child in the other car died. Ron was driving. He was drunk. It was the third time he’d been stopped while being drunk. The judge gave him six months time in Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.

That probably would have been the end of the story if he hadn’t run off. But Ron said he couldn’t stand it in a place like that and one day he just snuck off.

When he got away, he got a job, changed his name (to “Freeman” because that’s what he was now), got married and settled down. He even joined the local Presbyterian Church and taught a Sunday School on occasion. That also might have been the end of it except that Ron still needed to be famous. As a free man he ran for the legislature and put his picture all over Knoxville and somebody recognized it. In the thick of the campaign he was arrested again. This time he was given seven years, and this time he was sent to the maximum security prison in Nashville.

When I met him there as a chaplain, he was still doing time and still trying to think of something he could do that would make him famous. He had just gotten married again and was writing a book about his life. If people could just read about him, he said, he could become famous for sure. People from all over the country might read his book and know about the plight of prisoners and he might do some good with it and, of course, he might become a little famous with it in the process.

When I moved back to Oklahoma he was being moved back to Brushy Mountain. That’s a terrible place to be. It ‘s far up in the mountains and his wife couldn’t visit him very often. In the last letter I ever got from him, Ron said he wasn’t sure he could last in such a place much longer. He said being in prison was wasting his life and there were important big things he should be doing out in the free world.

That’s the last thing I ever hear about Ron until last week. He had finally gotten himself famous. He and a bunch of guys tied up a guard and broke out of Brushy Mountain. One turned himself in almost as soon as they got out. Three more got captured within a day or so. The two that were left got cornered in an abandoned house somewhere up in Kentucky and the police shot their way in. After all the shooting was over one of the two was captured, Ron was killed.

I wished, when I heard about it, that I had answered his letter. I wished that I had said something to him that would have made him want to stay. I wished that years ago I could have convinced the judge that Ron wasn’t really a criminal but just a guy that got in trouble. I wished...

Oh well, maybe Ron is happy now, since he finally got himself famous. Maybe he finally got what he wanted, pictured up there in the television set, looking down at the rest of the world, looking at us with a smile.